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Undercover Probe at VA Roadside Zoo: Abuse, Neglect, Public Danger

PHOTO: It may look like fun, but such close proximity to exotic animals invites trouble, according to an undercover investigation of Virginia's Natural Bridge Zoo. In addition to human safety issues, investigators say they found evidence of animal neglect and abuse. Photo courtesy Humane Society of the United States.
PHOTO: It may look like fun, but such close proximity to exotic animals invites trouble, according to an undercover investigation of Virginia's Natural Bridge Zoo. In addition to human safety issues, investigators say they found evidence of animal neglect and abuse. Photo courtesy Humane Society of the United States.
January 23, 2015

NATURAL BRIDGE, Va. - Abuse, neglect and unsanitary conditions are just a few of the terms used to describe the scene at a roadside zoo in Natural Bridge.

The Humane Society of the United States says it conducted an undercover investigation at Natural Bridge Zoo, which displays exotic animals - primates, bears and tigers. Wayne Pacelle, the society's president and chief executive, said the investigation revealed what he calls an "alarming number" of animal-welfare violations.

"Animals living in filth, animals denied adequate nutrition, animals who were manhandled, animals who were abused and harmed," Pacelle said. "This is all at odds with the normal standards of the professional zoological community."

Pacelle said the investigation included videotaping and took place from May through October, and some animals died during that time as a result of alleged neglect and lack of veterinary care. The zoo breeds tiger cubs and takes them away from their mothers when they are far too young for public interaction, he said. The zoo charges for "photo ops" with the cubs, and Pacelle said investigators even saw toddlers being allowed to interact with them.

"We believe it's inherently dangerous for the public to interact with these animals," he said. "It undermines the welfare of the animals and public safety, and does nothing to advance principles of conservation of endangered species."

The society filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prohibit public contact with big cats, primates and bears. Pacelle said this roadside zoo is one of 84 around the nation and is not to be confused with zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The Humane Society of the United States has filed complaints with local, state and federal authorities, Pacelle said, and would like to see the zoo's exhibitor license revoked. Calls for comments from Natural Bridge Zoo have gone unanswered for this story.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - VA