Animal rights activists rallied Sunday at the Natural Bridge Zoo-- an attraction that boasts the most complete collection of animals in Virginia. The Humane Society of the United States has a different description of the zoo, and federal officials say it's now under investigation.
Roadside zoos were once a popular feature of family vacations, giving people the chance to see wild animals long before they were featured in TV documentaries. Some still do a brisk business, but the Humane Society of the United States objects. Debbie Leahy is its manager of captive wildlife protection.
"These outdated attractions-- they're just said, and we get so many complaints from the public about Natural Bridge Zoo. You know, today's zoo-goer is much more sophisticated than they were 30 or 40 years ago, and they expect to see animals in a more natural habitat, where they have space to express natural behaviors, where they're not being torn from their mothers and carted around for public amusement."
At the Natural Bridge Zoo, for example, the public is invited to pose with baby tigers.
"The cubs can only be used for a few months-- until they're maybe about three months old, and then they grow too large for public handling and they get dumped. Sometimes they get shipped off to pseudo-sanctuaries, sometimes they're just warehoused at the facility and used for breeding once they're old enough, and it's just this constant cycle of breeding the animals, exploiting them for a few months and then dumping them."
And Brittany Peet, a lawyer with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says big cats are also abused.
"We've witnessed tigers who were confined in cramped cages pacing aimlessly, and the lone elephant at the Natural Bridge Zoo sways her body back and forth repeatedly, and these are signs of their profound deprivation."
The zoo's owner could not be immediately reached for comment, but federal regulators have cited and fined the facility more than $12,000 and this year launched a full-scale investigation.
Tanya Espinosa, who speaks for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says the probe could end with suspension or revocation of the zoo's license.
"That does not bean the owner has to necessarily get rid of their animals."
But without a source of income, she says the owner might opt to do so, and federal officials would help find suitable homes. In the meantime, the Humane Society is calling on states like Virginia to pass tougher laws governing wildlife care.
"We were on the grounds in Ohio, after that suicidal man released nearly 50 big cats, bears, wolves and primates and we supported efforts there to pass stronger laws, which they did. The private possession of dangerous wild animals such as big cats, bear and primates should really be limited to zoo professionals-- people who are trained and have the knowledge, experience and resources to provide these animals with an appropriate and humane captive environment."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos, circuses, breeding and animal research facilities, says it welcomes reports from the public.
"This is a partnership. There are things that they see sometimes in between our inspections, so definitely let us know and we will look at it and see what we can find out-- absolutely," said Espinosa.
Debbie Leahy and other animal rights advocates urge the public not to patronize zoos unless they are accredited.