By Margaret Beimdiek 

A Rockbridge County jury has decided that 71 animals at the Natural Bridge Zoo had been treated cruelly and that 29 had not been. 

The jury of four men and three women began deliberating at 1:30 p.m. Monday and returned 100 verdicts after midnight Tuesday. The trial started on Feb. 26 and lasted six days with testimony from 23 witnesses. 

“Virginians support clean, safe environments for animals, whether they be personal pets or zoo animals,” Attorney General Jason S. Miyares said in a statement after the verdict. 

The jury decided that 71 animals that were cruelly treated will remain in the Rockbridge County’s custody, and 29 animals will be returned to the zoo because they had received adequate care. The jury decided that the abused animals included four giraffes that have remained at the zoo since Dec. 6 when state police raided the zoo and seized 99 animals, including one that later gave birth. The giraffes were left behind at the zoo because they were too difficult to move.  

“Last week I said we were going to peek behind the curtain,” prosecutor Michelle Welch said during closing arguments. “And what’s behind that curtain is a whole lot of suffering animals and filth.”  

After the verdict, Welch asked Circuit Court Judge Christopher Russell to allow the state to conduct unannounced inspections of the zoo for five years. The AG’s office is continuing its criminal investigation, according to Miyares’s statement. 

She also asked Russell to order the zoo’s owners, Karl and Debbie Mogensen, to reimburse the state for the care of the animals that were seized. Russell set a hearing for 2 p.m. April 4. 

Welch, who heads the animal law unit in the state attorney general’s office, had to prove that each animal had been either cruelly treated or had been deprived of care that led to a “direct and immediate threat to the animal’s life, health or safety.”  

She argued that testimony from the prosecution’s witnesses showed that every animal was abused under the law. She said the animals were not properly fed. She said they did not have clean water. And she said many of them needed veterinary care.  

Since the seizure, Welch said, the animals’ physical conditions have improved while they’ve been housed at zoos and shelters across the country.  

“They have been cared for more in the last two months than they ever were at Natural Bridge Zoo,” Welch told the jury.  

The defense’s case challenged the legitimacy of the Dec. 6 raid on the zoo, which Welch said was justified.   

“When we find animals suffering, ladies and gentlemen, we don’t have to wait until they end up in this zoo’s freezer,” she told jurors. “We don’t have to wait for them to die and be on death’s door to seize them.”  

How it happened

Prosecutors relied on information from two confidential informants to support an affidavit to convince a Powhatan Circuit Court Judge to approve the search warrant in December. One of the informants was an employee for only six months in 2023, and the other informant pretended to be a member of the public who visited the zoo.  

Welch argued that the informants were credible because they had evidence captured on camera.  

Defense attorney Erin Harrigan, who represented the Mogensens, argued that the affidavit misled the judge into granting a search warrant. Harrigan also said the informants were not credible, and that the former employee was working undercover for PETA.  

Harrigan argued that the animals were well-cared for. She said they had plenty of food, water and fresh vegetables. The defense’s witnesses also testified that most of the animals appeared in good condition.   

The defense attorney showed the jury pictures of the animals’ enclosures. She said there were adequate light sources, ventilation and drains. Harrigan also pointed out a picture of a feeding schedule, which she said showed that animals were well fed.  

Both sides focused many of their arguments throughout the trial on the conditions of the enclosures.  

Witnesses for the prosecution testified that the animal enclosures were dirty and that they lacked perches and toys.  

During closing arguments, Welch showed the jury a picture of the tortoise enclosure. “That’s not water,” she said, referring to liquid visible in the photo. “That’s feces, that’s urine.”  

Harrigan said the enclosures looked dirty in the photos because the search prevented zookeepers from performing their normal duties.  

A Virginia State Police trooper called by the defense said zookeepers, who arrived for work at about 8 a.m. weren’t allowed to care for the animals until after 1 p.m.  

“Ask yourself why they picked that day and that time to pull back the curtains on the zoo,” Harrigan said to the jury. “Are you really looking at what the zoo looks like on a normal day?”  

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