LEXINGTON — The Natural Bridge Zoo will remain closed for the foreseeable future, after a last-ditch effort failed Friday when a judge declined to restore its state permit.
Accused by government regulators and animals rights groups of mistreating the creatures it confines, the zoo had sought to move past those issues in time to reopen as scheduled on Saturday, following a winter break.
Lawyers for the zoo sought a temporary restraining order from a Rockbridge County judge that would have reversed a decision by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which last month suspended the zoo’s permit to exhibit wild animals.
The state relied on recent inspections from a federal agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in finding that “many of the animals are confined under unsanitary and inhumane conditions” at the roadside zoo, which has long been a target of animal rights groups.
Although Circuit Judge Michael Irvine expressed some concerns about how the state went about suspending the zoo’s permit, he said he was not prepared to reverse its decision on short notice. He left open the possibility of the zoo renewing its request in the future.
In asking for the temporary restraining order, lawyers for the zoo said all of the problems identified in two USDA inspections this year have been corrected.
Continuing to keep the zoo closed, they said, would pose an economic hardship because group visits, many involving busloads of school children, would have to be canceled in the coming weeks.
In an affidavit submitted to the court, zoo owner Karl Mogensen said he has spent about $35,000 to address the issues raised by the USDA.
Among the changes: Creation of a new veterinary care program, removal of guinea pigs from the zoo, and the elimination of a program that had allowed zoo patrons to be photographed while holding tiger cubs.
The USDA has said it found more than 40 animals at the zoo that were in need of veterinary attention for problems that ranged from hair loss to lameness.
Guinea pigs were an issue for inspectors, in part, because of the zoo’s practice of euthanasia, which involved slamming them onto a concrete floor before their carcasses were fed to tigers.
And the practice of allowing members of the public to be photographed holding tiger cubs raised two concerns: in some cases the cubs were so young they were subjected to the risk of infection, and in other cases they were so large as to pose a risk to patrons.
Other problems cited by inspectors included dirty and foul-smelling enclosures for some animals, and pervasive clutter throughout the zoo that may have contributed to a rodent infestation.
Despite being cited 44 times this year by the USDA for violating the Animal Welfare Act, the zoo still holds its federal license.
The USDA has said it is in the midst of an investigation that could lead to the license been suspended or revoked, but declined this week to comment further.
With the federal regulatory process expected to last for months, the zoo had been preparing to reopen this weekend until it was told that its state permit was being suspended.
The zoo’s attorney, Joe Wilson, argued Friday that the suspension was unlawful on a number of fronts, in part because state officials relied on federal regulations that exceeded their own enforcement powers.
State officials say that while the USDA has ultimate authority over the zoo’s license, it cannot open without the DGIF permit to exhibit wild animals. That permit applies not just to elephants and tigers, they say, but also domestic animals such as goats and rabbits.
But isn’t it true that the animals would remain in the zoo regardless of whether it’s open to the public? Irvine asked during a hearing.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Hull replied that allowing the zoo to entertain customers would distract it from the key task at hand, which is to correct the problems identified in USDA inspections conducted in January and March.
“This is a bad zoo,” Hull said.
That may be true, the judge said, “but for the life of me, if it’s a bad zoo, I don’t know why you gave them a permit on March 2.” That is when DGIF renewed the zoo’s annual permit to exhibit wild animals, only to suspend it seven days later in a letter to Mogensen that cited the earlier USDA inspections.
Taking a break from presiding over a jury trial Friday, Irvine said he had not had time to carefully read all of the legal arguments presented by the zoo, which had filed its request for a temporary restraining order the day before.
Wilson said after the hearing that no immediate decision had been made on whether to take the request back to court sometime in the future.