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Natural Bridge Zoo owner appears in court, Zoo remains suspended

Natural Bridge Zoo owner appears in court, Zoo remains suspended (Image 1) (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

ROCKBRIDGE CO. (WSLS 10) - The owner of Natural Bridge Zoo was in court Friday, asking a judge to allow the zoo to open over the weekend as planned.

The Rockbridge County judge decided not to issue a temporary restraining order against the state's decision. That means the zoo cannot reopen until its license is reinstated by the state.

The suspension was issued by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries March 9, only a week after reissuing their permit on March 2. While the exact basis of the suspension is unclear according to court documents, attorneys for the DGIF say it is based on findings from the USDA on multiple citations during a January inspection and possibly the findings of a follow up inspection in March.

Read the full report here.

According to the USDA report, multiple animals were found injured or sick. The report also says living conditions were unsafe.

Mogensen's attorneys are challenging whether the state has jurisdiction to revoke a license based on findings from a federal agency. They also said the state has no jurisdiction over exotic animals.

In court documents, Mogensen says the suspension will do irreparable damage to the zoo's business if he is not allowed to open on time after several groups had committed to attend on opening day. Mogensen said Friday he disagreed with the violations, and the less than thirty days notice suspension to his original opening date.

The timing of the suspension came with such short notice, not even an appeal would allow the issue to be resolved in time to re-open the zoo. Jim Husbands, attorney for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said there were serious violations that need to be fixed before the zoo can reopen.

"I'm not surprised by the outcome," Husbands said. "I feel like DGIF acted properly and we suspended natural bridge zoo's permit after doing our due diligence and studying the situation and acting with the facts that we had at hand."

Husbands said it is their hopes that the zoo will fix the issues.

"We look forward to Natural Bridge Zoo's becoming compliant and reissuing their permit," Husbands said.

Mogensen said Friday that he has spent $35,000 to fix the problems in the zoo since the most recent inspection. His attorney says they are ready for another inspection. In fact, they have requested multiple follow up inspections.

The USDA inspections are scheduled on random to insure genuine changes have been made.

It was unclear exactly what measures have to be met in order to reissue the license. Attorneys at least two USDA inspections without any citations must occur before they can expect a license to be reissued.

Despite the judge declining to issue a restraining order to overturn the suspension, another court date will be set to hear the case, allowing the judge more time to make an informative decision. During the once-planned opening weekend, the zoo will remain closed to the public. 

"An Elephant Calling," a local group in Southwest Virginia that has ties to "In Defense of Animals," planned a protest during the weekend.