Contentious Battle for Custody: Virginia’s Natural Bridge Zoo Faces Legal Showdown Over Animal Seizure

LEXINGTON, Virginia – A custody battle over nearly 100 animals seized from the Natural Bridge Zoo two months ago is ongoing in Rockbridge Circuit Court. The zoo, owned by Karl and Debra “Debbie” Mogensen, had its animals seized after allegations of mistreatment and unsafe conditions surfaced. The case reached the circuit level after a judge ruled for the return of some animals to the zoo in January. Now, a jury of seven citizens, along with two alternates, is hearing evidence regarding the welfare of the seized animals and will decide if the zoo can regain custody.

The custody proceedings took a significant step this week with Senior Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch representing Rockbridge County. The prosecution has called witnesses, but as of Wednesday evening, had not yet rested its case. The defense, which includes lawyers Aaron Cook and Erin Harrigan, has focused on scrutinizing the procedures used during an undercover investigation of the zoo and the criteria for determining which animals to seize.

The case took an interesting turn when it was revealed that an animal control officer from Powhatan County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Christine Boczar, acted as an undercover officer on behalf of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force (VAFTF) during the investigation. Boczar’s observation visits to the zoo in October and November revealed instances of neglect and poor upkeep, including a deceased goat, dirty water in the swans’ pool, and competition among the deer. Boczar reported her findings, leading to the drafting of an affidavit and the granting of a search warrant.

The defense has requested records related to Boczar’s assignment within the VAFTF and a previous dog-bite incident involving her. While the Powhatan County Sheriff’s Office argued that it is not a party in the case, Judge Christopher Russell expressed concerns about a sheriff’s office from a different county being involved in the search of a facility in Rockbridge. Russell has requested paperwork to address this issue.

The prosecution has presented testimony from veterinarians who examined the zoo’s animals in December, highlighting concerns about living conditions and health. Specifically, one veterinarian testified that a tiger at the zoo had terminal cancer and was euthanized with consent from Gretchen “Sasha” Mogensen, the zoo’s facilities manager. The defense cross-examined the lead veterinarian, revealing that two animals seized in December had since died.

The trial is expected to continue into next week, with the court voicing its concerns about the timeline. With a significant number of exhibits presented by both sides, the jury will have to carefully weigh the evidence before making a custody decision.