Eller: Natural Bridge Zoo works hard to comply with rules

I read the August 26 Roanoke Times article about the Natural Bridge Zoo with great interest, but was left with several questions. As l read the story by Laurence Hammack, I asked myself, “What’s the rest of the story?” You see, I have always believed all sides of a story should be told, and that wasn’t the case in the piece by Mr. Hammack.

I was privileged to serve President George W. Bush as Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). One of my responsibilities was to oversee implementation of the federal Animal Welfare Act by the Animal Care Division within USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). APHIS’ Animal Care staff conducts regular inspections of facilities registered under the Animal Welfare Act, including the Natural Bridge Zoo.

Over the years, and while working at the USDA, I’ve taken my children through the Natural Bridge Zoo on the way to and from our farm in Southwest Virginia. We always enjoyed the atmosphere of the zoo, a serene, rural, agrarian setting allowing youngsters to experience the animals in natural surroundings and a family atmosphere.

The Natural Bridge Zoo is a small family business, one that’s been operated by the Mogensen family for 45 years. The Mogensen children were born there, and as they grew, they were taught to work as a family to maximize the care and welfare of the animals under their stewardship.

The Natural Bridge Zoo is one of the few facilities in the country specializing in supplying other zoological parks and game farms with farm-raised birds and animals. The Natural Bridge Zoo husbands giraffes, camels, zebras, several species of African antelope, various species of endangered lemur from Madagascar, several species of South American primates, plus Bengal tigers, African serval cats, and Eurasian lynx.

The Mogensens are experienced exotic animal breeders who take great pride in their expertise and breeding success. Debbie Mogensen is a master bird breeder who regularly hatches and raises the rare Double Wattled Cassowaries, a large 6-ft.,160-lb member of the ostrich family from Northern Australia and New Guinea. These birds are endangered, and Debbie raises more of them than all other zoos in the country combined. The Natural Bridge Zoo also raises seven species of cranes, many of which are considered very endangered. These achievements are possible only because the staff at the Natural Bridge Zoo are experts at what they do and they care about the welfare of their animals. The general public is fortunate to be able to come and share the fruits of their compassion and professionalism.

Since 2015, the Natural Bridge Zoo has spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars upgrading its facilities and fine-tuning facility management to comply with USDA rules and cooperate with routine inspections. Still more improvements are planned at still greater expense. It seems Mr. Hammack has gone to great lengths in several articles in the Times to dwell on the citations issued by USDA without providing context for those citations. In none of his accounts do I see Mr. Hammack describe or even acknowledge the zoo’s efforts to successfully satisfy USDA inspectors.

I personally reviewed the 2017 USDA Animal Care inspection reports on several Virginia facilities. Practically every animal facility in Virginia received citations. Nearly all such citations are for minor infractions, housekeeping issues cleared up within hours of receiving the inspection reports.

I challenge the Times to report “the rest of the story.” Perhaps another reporter, one more interested in objective reporting, could be sent to the Natural Bridge Zoo. A complete profile of the facility must acknowledge the time, expense and effort the Mogensen family has poured into the zoo over the past three years; it should tell how the zoo plans to build a second outside perimeter fence through thick vegetation to further preserve the zoo animals’ privacy and protect them from outside intrusion, and the profile should include the Mogensens’ plans for a second elephant fence, along with its astronomical cost.

A conversation for another time might cover the wide range of national professional groups, laboratories, scientists, companies and animal breeders — all regulated and inspected under the federal Animal Welfare Act — who increasingly ask these days if outside animal “advocacy” groups have exercised influence over USDA’s Animal Care program to the point of impacting inspections, citations and the penalties levied by USDA.


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