Jury in Natural Bridge Zoo trial decides state justified in seizing 71 animals

Attorney General Jason Miyares releases statement on verdict

LEXINGTON, Va. – After a six-day trial, a jury has decided the state was justified in seizing 71 out of 100 animals they took during a search at Natural Bridge Zoo last December.

The jury deliberated for about 10 hours, coming back shortly before midnight Monday night.

The 71 seized animals include four giraffes, 12 white-faced capuchins and a green Burmese python, among many other animals. 29 animals will be returned, including an albino Burmese python, a kookaburra, and six ring-tailed lemurs.

Attorney General Jason Miyares stated that he was pleased that the manner was appropriately handled.

“Virginians support clean, safe environments for animals, whether they be personal pets or zoo animals. We are grateful for the jury’s thorough deliberation and thank our law enforcement partners for their assistance in ensuring the future welfare of these animals.”

Additionally, the AG’s office said they have an open criminal investigation into the zoo.

The defense declined to comment following the verdict.

If you remember, this case is on appeal. Last month a judge ruled that around 60 of the animals seized were justified.

The case can be appealed a second time. There will be a post-trial motion hearing on April 4 at 2 p.m. to consider the bond amount. The state asked for unannounced inspections at the zoo and to consider the cost of care of the animals then too.

Over the past six days, special prosecutor Michelle Welch tried to prove that animals were receiving inadequate care, saying they were thin or living in dirty enclosures.

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

The defense argued enclosures were dirty because the search happened in the morning before their cleaning, and they said some of the animals were thin or sick because of their age.

“A zoo with a policy of treating handicapped animals, as one witness put it, older animals, animals that might not be the prettiest specimens out on display, whether that story means that they should be deprived of their animals, whether that means that those animals were suffering, whether that means they were cruelly treating them,” zoo’s defense attorney Erin Harrigan said.

One witness spoke earlier on Monday before deliberations began, a Virginia State Police officer, who said that during the search zookeepers couldn’t care for most of the animals until after 1 p.m.

[MORE COVERAGE: Natural Bridge Zoo]

“They have been living and being deprived of adequate care and cruelly treated, for years,” Welch said.

“We do not have animals that have any evidence of cruel treatment,” Harrigan said. “We do not have animals with any evidence of a deprivation of veterinary care.”

Monday’s decision:

71 animals remain seized:

  • 1 green burmese python
  • 1 female gibbon
  • 6 cotton-topped tamarin
  • 2 ball python
  • 12 white faced capuchin
  • 5 brown faced capuchin
  • 4 giraffe
  • 3 aldabra tortoise
  • 7 sulcata tortoise
  • 14 macaw
  • 3 ground hornbill
  • 4 red-footed tortoise
  • 1 dog (kuvasz type)
  • 1 mini donkey
  • 5 red-eared slider turtle
  • 1 painted turtle
  • 1 blue-tongued skink

29 will be returned:

  • 1 albino burmese python
  • 1 male gibbon
  • 2 sacred ibis
  • 1 kookaburra
  • 1 poitou donkey
  • 2 red ruffed lemur
  • 3 white ruffed lemur
  • 6 ringtailed lemur
  • 1 sulfur-crested cockatoo
  • 4 amazon parrot
  • 2 pink and gray cockatoo
  • 1 sheep
  • 2 llama
  • 1 serval
  • 1 macaw

About the Author

Amy Cockerham joined the 10 News team in January 2023.