This is Asha’s story…
Asha is a 39-year-old African female elephant who was 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 38-year-old African elephant Asha. She has been forced to spend 33 of her 38 years held 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 the 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 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 2021, to support our work to free Asha from the Natural Bridge Zoo, FACE retained a world-renowned elephant expert to prepare a health assessment on Asha. He traveled over 2,000 miles to the zoo to take undercover footage as well as get a first-hand look at Asha, and all the animals at the zoo and the conditions under which they are kept. The results of this assessment are clear, Asha is being held in inhumane conditions, not the least of which is the fact that Asha is living as a solitary elephant which is a cruel existence for an innately social animal. This assessment is being sent to key authorities at both the state and federal level.
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 July 2021, FACE co-founder, Board Member and General Counsel, Dee Gaug, published the following article about the USDA inaction to help captive elephants: https://www.newsclick.in/How-USDA-Failing-America-Captive-Elephants
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 Board Member and General Counsel, 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 is currently working with our collaborating organizations to draft new legislation (Asha’s Law) in Virginia that will 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 before the end of 2022.
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.