This is Asha’s story… BREAKING NEWS!
Animals Seized at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia where Asha has been held captive for over 37 years! Asha’s whereabouts have not been confirmed at this time by the Office of the Attorney General. When this becomes public, we will share these reports.
December 6, 2023.
Virginia State Police served a search warrant December 6 on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office to search the zoo in a case of alleged animal cruelty.
The warrants describe what investigators took from the premises, which includes 95 living animals, dozens of dead animals, and several animal body parts.
This is an ongoing investigation and we will provide updates as they come from facts of the case. There are many media reports circulating about the conditions of the animals and how they were found. Testimony coming from a confidential informant from inside the zoo who witnessed the handler of Asha making statements about her “care” is listed below:
Much of the warrant focuses on elephant keeper Mark Easley.
According to the warrant, Asha the African elephant would wake up in the morning in a barn with two large cracks in the wall. She was chained inside. On May 8, Easley told the informant Asha is “standing and sleeping in her own urine.”
“[The informant] documented smeared excrement and urine puddled on the mat covering the concrete floor,” reads the warrant. “Due to the buckling of the mat, urine and water rest on the mat as it prevents the liquids from properly running into the floor drain. In one of the videos where they are in the elephant barn, Easley says ‘see how the water’s just standing? That’s urine.’ Due to Asha being housed in shackles, she is not able to freely move out of her own waste.”
He also allegedly gave Asha cold baths because he does not want to “baby them too much.” The baths were necessary for Asha to fulfill one of her jobs — giving rides.
More direct abuse was also allegedly witnessed by the first informant. Easley, who has worked at the zoo for over 15 years, carries a bullhook, a “pole with a metal hook and metal tip used in training and controlling elephants by applying pressure to sensitive points on an elephant’s body,” according to the warrant.
“[The informant] saw [Easley] jab Asha in her right forefoot two times with the pointed end of a bullhook with enough force to get a reaction from Asha,” the warrant reads. “When he did this, she immediately lifted her right foot, and shifted where she was standing. This jabbing happened during the time elephant rides were available, but no guests were nearby, and at the time [Easley] was sitting in a chair and Asha was standing at the loading platform. I asked [Easley] why he ‘poked’ Asha in her foot ‘the other day, and he told me that she was ‘spitting in [his] direction.’ During our conversation [Easley] told Asha move up, and then swung the hooked end of a bullhook against her left hind limb, after which she moved forwards.”
Over the course of several months, Easley allegedly explained his reasoning to the informant, saying “it is about authority. I’m not her friend, I’m her boss, and you gain respect through fear.” He allegedly felt his role was to gain “keeper respect” from the park animals. In order to get this with Asha, Easley advised the bullhook “always” be used where “bone is close to flesh. Make it count.”
We will keep updating as we get the facts in this case. Our deep concern is for Asha. She deserves this chance to go to true sanctuary.
Asha is an African Savanna female elephant who was wild born in Zimbabwe somewhere between 1982-83. Asha lost her entire family in a horrific culling slaughter orchestrated by the government of Zimbabwe in 1984. She was sent to the USA by the Schultz Company to later be exploited by the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia at only two years old.
Asha was a frightened baby destined for a life of human torture. And torture it has been.
The Natural Bridge Zoo has nearly 150 Violations of the Animal Welfare Act, the most recent in January, 2022, and has had its permit suspended twice, only to have it reinstated just a short time later. Yet, both state and federal agencies continue to renew the zoo’s exhibitor permit year after year. This failure to protect the welfare of captive animals is happening in other states across the US and in Canada.
In March 2021, In Defense of Animals published their annual list of The Ten Worst Zoos in America (https://www.idausa.org/campaign/elephants/2020worstzoos/). IDA reported: “This is Natural Bridge Zoo’s seventh consecutive year being featured on the list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants — and in these seven years, little has changed for Asha. She has been forced to spend most of her life in social isolation since arriving at this roadside zoo that has accrued nearly 150 Animal Welfare Act violations. She is held in a small barren enclosure during the winters where she is essentially in storage. During the summers, Asha is forced to give rides to thousands of people each year, while under the constant threat of the bullhook. A glimmer of hope emerged in 2020 as a bill spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States and supported by In Defense of Animals made its way through the Virginia state legislature aimed at prohibiting public contact with ‘dangerous’ captive animals. The bill included elephants within its purview and would have banned elephant riding throughout the state. However, Karl Mogensen, owner of Natural Bridge Zoo, lobbied along with other groups to exclude elephants from the bill. During a hearing, Mogensen provided testimony where he sexualized Asha, referring to her as a “centerfold for elephant Playboy.” Ultimately, elephants were excluded from the bill, leaving Asha and the public unprotected to this day. Legislators didn’t get the whole story about how dangerous captive elephants can be. While elephants can be gentle, peaceful beings, the conditions of captivity can drive them to aggression, and unfortunately captive elephant attacks are quite common. Asha has attacked her handler and attacked and killed another elephant in 1996 — facts which clearly demonstrate that elephants should be considered dangerous and that activities such as encouraging humans to ride on their backs can prove dangerous or even lethal. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums mandates protected contact — a barrier between elephants and humans, and in 2002 removed a provision from its accreditation standards of care that allowed for elephant riding; Natural Bridge Zoo abides by neither. Natural Bridge Zoo is not AZA-accredited, and will never be if it continues to treat Asha as poorly as it does. Failed by her captor and Virginia legislators, long-suffering Asha needs a miracle similar to the one experienced by Nosey to get to the accredited sanctuary she deserves.”
Since learning about Asha, FACE has been conducting an ongoing advocacy campaign via email and social media to raise awareness of Asha’s situation at the Natural Bridge Zoo. For the past two years we have been working with legislature in Virginia to pass more laws to protect elephants under Virginia’s Comprehensive Animal Care Law which includes the state’s anti-cruelty provisions.
On March 28, 2018, FACE, worked side by side with The Animal Defense Partnership, Inc. (“ADP”), In Defense of Animals, One World Conservation, and Dr. Anna Katogiritis, DVM (formerly of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Program, Greece) to file a civil and criminal wildlife complaint with Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries (now known as Virginia Dept. of Wildlife Resources) on behalf of numerous Virginia residents against the zoo and its owner, Karl Mogensen for abuse and neglect of Asha. Our complaint called on this law enforcement agency to seize Asha and revoke Mogensen’s exhibitor’s permit. (Please contact us if you would like a copy of this complaint.)
On October 11, 2019, in collaboration with The Humane Society of the United States, The Animal Defense Partnership and others, FACE submitted a detailed letter along with over 30 exhibits to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) urging, among other things, that DGIF not renew the Natural Bridge Zoo’s (NBZ) Permit to Exhibit Wild Animals in Virginia and seize the animals at the zoo including Asha the Elephant.
In January of 2022, FACE filed a complaint with the USDA on behalf of a member of the public who contacted us with concerns about Asha’s living conditions and handling. This complaint resulted in the USDA’s January, 2022 finding that the zoo is continuing to violate the Animal Welfare act.
In February of 2022, FACE was asked to contribute to two articles featuring the Natural Bridge Zoo and Asha:
- National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/what-happens-when-captive-us-elephants-live-alone
- A highly respected news magazine, yet to be announced, approached FACE for information on Asha. This will be posted here upon publication.
Since 2019, FACE has been working with Virginia legislators to pass laws to protect captive elephants. In 2020, our Vice President, Dee Gaug, gave testimony before the Virginia House Agriculture Subcommittee for the passage of SB 1030, which was written to prohibit public contact with captive, dangerous animals and would also have prohibited elephant rides. Unfortunately, the bill was passed after elephants were removed from the definition of dangerous animals. FACE also worked with our collaborating organizations to draft new legislation (Asha’s Law), in Virginia that would end elephants in captivity in Virginia. We are reaching out to potential sponsors who expressed interest in freeing Asha in hopes of getting this law passed at a future date and time.
In partnership with In Defense of Animals, FACE created a billboard campaign in Richmond, Virginia to spread awareness about the many violations of the Animal Welfare Act at the Natural Bridge Zoo. This billboard was on display for two months with over 300,000 people per week reading our message.
FACE will continue to pursue all available avenues to free Asha until she is released from the Natural Bridge Zoo and transferred to sanctuary.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
Once FACE has secured a sponsor for Asha’s Law, we will post information about how Virginia residents can contact their legislators to ask them to support this bill. In the meantime, you can call Rockbridge County’s Commonwealth Attorney Jared Moon and tell him that the conditions at the Natural Bridge Zoo are unacceptable and he needs to do his job to enforce Virginia’s animal cruelty laws: 20 South Randolph Street, Suite 301, Lexington, VA 24450, Phone: 540-463-7337.
Important actions that will help to further support the efforts of FACE to help Asha:
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office recently seized over 100 animals from Wilson’s Road Side Zoo.
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FACE applauds the Virginia Attorney General’s Office and fully supports their actions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZDLv6If848 (News Report on Asha)
Read one of MANY USDA inspection reports on the Natural Bridge Zoo here:
With respect to providing adequate care and according to the USDA, Natural Bridge Zoo:
- Failed to adequately clean and sanitize animal enclosures or to control infestations of insect and mammalian pests.
- Failed to provide adequate space for certain animals to move and make normal postural adjustments, leading to high rates of illness, injury, and death.
- Failed to ensure that animals are sheltered in a manner that protects them from the elements.
- Failed to separate animals who are incompatible with each other, putting these animals at risk of severe physical injuries.
- Failed to prepare animal feed in a sanitary manner and fails to provide infant animals with necessary sustenance.
- Failed to provide certain animals with adequate access to potable water, causing extreme thirst.