By Luanne Rife
The Natural Bridge Zoo was declared the worst place in America for an elephant to live. The Rockbridge County zoo made its debut in the No. 1 spot on In Defense of Animals’ top 10 list because Asha lives a life of solitude.
“The female African elephant has been alone, without the company of other elephants, for at least a decade,” said IDA’s Toni Frohoff. “All available science shows elephants are among the most social of animals.”
Frohoff said elephants are highly intelligent and self-aware, which would make Asha’s existence without other elephants highly traumatic.
Karl Mogensen, the zoo’s owner who rescued Asha 30 years ago as a 3½-foot-tall baby after her mother was culled, said the elephant is never alone.
“She has someone with her all the time. She has 24-hour attention,” he said. The elephant has companion dogs.
While dogs make for great best friends and at times are preferable to human companionship, Frohoff said no human would seek to go 10 years without encountering another human.
This is the 11th year that IDA has published a list of the top 10 worst zoos for elephants, but the first time that the Natural Bridge Zoo was named. Frohoff said she placed it on the list after reviewing photographic and video evidence of the elephant’s treatment. She had not visited the zoo and declined to say who submitted the evidence.
“The video footage and documentation was from very well-respected sources … it was irrefutably clear that the elephant was in a completely inappropriate environment,” she said.
“They are saying we are one of the 10 worst places in the country. Disney is on the list,” he said. “The result of this is just animal rights organizations trying to get compassionate, kind and unknowing people to give them money.”
Others on the list include the San Antonio Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.
Mogensen has said repeatedly that animal rights organizations prey upon well-meaning people to enrich their bank accounts. He has denied any abuse of Asha.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last year filed several complaints against the zoo. A USDA inspector visited the zoo eight times in 2014, twice for routine inspections and the balance for specific complaints. The inspector found in February during a routine inspection that the concrete floor of the mouse building needed repaired. In June, during the other routine inspection, there were two findings. A gate on a fence outside the exhibit area was high enough to allow skunks and foxes to enter the zoo, and a shade cloth over the Asiatic bear exhibit was tattered around the edges so that it could no longer offer full protection from the sun.
A March inspection specifically to check on Asha did not turn up any noncompliance issues.
A number of complaints in 2013 turned up several violations of animal care, with the most egregious involving the care of giraffes’ hooves.
That year, the zoo also faced scrutiny when a state trooper sought an investigation after witnessing Asha’s handler using abusive language and jabbing the elephant with a bullhook. No charges resulted. In an interview at the zoo this past summer, Mogensen said bullhooks are “the equivalent of a hooked finger on a stick,” and allow handlers a longer reach to guide elephants, similar to a leash on a dog.
IDA’s Frohoff said, “the presence of a bullhook alone is completely inappropriate at this stage of elephant husbandry and management.”
She also dismissed Mogensen’s rationale that Asha is well cared for as she leads a life without other elephants.
“The owner has no knowledge about elephants. The owner appears to be in the dark about normal behavior of elephants.” Frohoff said that Asha could be a candidate for transfer to an animal sanctuary.
Mogensen said, “she has a very, very fine life. In the zoo organizations, we are very well thought of.”