With its planned March opening delayed, the zoo has been missing out on visitor dollars even as owner Karl Mogensen has reported spending roughly $40,000 trying to bring the long-neglected facility up to standards. This was in addition to his usual operating expenses, like the $5,000 he pays monthly for feed.
This isn't entirely surprising. Back in April, when Mogensen's license was revoked, I pointed out that he was responsible for a zoo's worth of animals without any visitor income. I said then that I hoped this period would be short lived.
Apparently, it hasn't been short enough. This week, Mogensen told public radio station WMRA that the zoo's closure has forced him to begin selling his stock.
"On April 20, he posted an ad to an exotic animal website for the sale of two camels for $12,000 each and four spider monkeys for $9,000 each." — WMRA
While Mogensen has bred and traded exotic animals for years, hearing him suggest that he's selling his exhibit animals worries me. I reached out to Tanya Espinosa at the USDA's public affairs office to see how much longer all of this might take.
"There is no timeframe on investigations," she told me, "as we want to make sure that we are as thorough as possible."
This was a prudent response and, as it turns out, a slightly cagey one. Ms. Espinosa likely knew a bit of news she didn't mention. USDA representatives were back at the zoo this week, making their final inspection. By Friday, news outlets were reporting this fact and saying that state officials are awaiting the Feds' last report, which begs one question—with the welfare of all these animals at stake, what happens next?
"Once an investigation is complete," Ms. Espinosa told me when we talked, "there are a couple of options."
First, an Official Letter of Warning could be issued, she explained. This doesn't have any monetary penalty. It simply tells Mogensen that he is not in compliance— basically, a slap on the hand.
Second, the investigation could lead to a "stipulation," which does impose a monetary penalty, or third, the case could be sent to an administrative law judge, who's ruling could extend the suspension of the zoo's license or revoke that license outright.
While there remain a lot of possible outcomes, none seem to relocate the zoo animals somewhere safe. This was a cornerstone of the petition I launched, which called for the USDA to close the zoo and move its animals to sanctuaries.
In a follow up email, I asked Ms. Espinosa if the agency has the authority to take this action but received no reply. I did, however, reach a representative at People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA), who said that while Mogensen may be allowed to keep the animals, if his license is revoked, "he will no longer be able to act as an animal dealer, which is currently covered by his federal license."
This is a promising twist. Without the ability to sell his animals, Mogensen would have no incentive to breed them, which could save many generations of animals from his slipshod care and uncertain futures on the exotic animal market.
But that's not all. PETA pointed out that without a license to exhibit or sell, Mogensen would have little reason to keep his existing zoo animals. "If and when that time comes," my contact was quick to point out, "PETA will do everything in its power to ensure the animals are placed in reputable, accredited sanctuaries."
So, friends, hope stands! The zoo is closed for now. A decision is coming soon. And the animals at Natural Bridge Zoo may yet find good homes.
Thank you all for your concern and unwavering voices.