Cheyenne, a Siberian tiger, romps in an old swimming pool at Tri-State Zoological Park in Cumberland, Md. Cheyenne is one of five big cats living in the enclosure. Robert Candy, owner of the zoo, said that the space is not aesthetically pleasing but that the cats are well cared for. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The owner of the Reston Zoo in Northern Virginia has extolled the staff’s love of animals, but an employee drowned an injured wallaby in a plastic bucket, and a frostbitten spider monkey went so long without treatment that it had to be euthanized.

The Natural Bridge Zoo in western Virginia is billed as a sanctuary, but on recent visits, federal inspectors found more than 40 animals in need of veterinary care and questioned staff about a video that shows employees jabbing a monkey with sticks.

The Tri-State Zoological Park in Western Maryland advertises itself as a great stop for kids, but an inspector reported that some children had reached through a cage to pet tigers while a guide stood nearby.

Those are among a host of ­problems identified at six small zoos in Maryland and Virginia that are popular destinations for ­Washington-area families. Over the past decade, more than 80 animals have died, been injured or become ill because of neglect at the zoos, and more than 200 others were kept in inhumane conditions, according to hundreds of pages of federal inspection reports, interviews with keepers and court documents. Minor problems were reported at four more zoos.

Maulings, escapes and deaths: Which small D.C.-area zoos have put people and animals at risk

Inspectors allege that animals went unfed and without water, were kept in the dark and in filth, and had serious injuries and wounds that were left untreated. Documents also report safety lapses — including decrepit cages and animal escapes — that placed workers and visitors at risk. Alleged violations were documented by inspectors with the U.S. Agriculture Department as recently as this summer.

Problems persist at roadside zoos, in part, because oversight and enforcement are often lacking. In recent years, the number of penalties issued by federal authorities to small zoos in the eastern half of the United States has remained at a level previously deemed too low by government auditors. And when enforcement was pursued, it often came years after the violations.

Small zoos are a world away from such big-name institutions as the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Some are staffed largely by volunteers, have shoestring budgets and are not certified by the national organization that determines whether larger zoos are properly caring for animals. Someone wishing to open a small zoo needs only fill out a brief application with the USDA, demonstrate knowledge of animals and undergo an inspection — no formal training required.

States are free to pass laws requiring higher standards of care in zoos, but most of the regulation has fallen to the federal government.

The heads of the Oakland and Detroit zoos reviewed The Washington Post’s findings and said they were troubling. Nevertheless, Ron L. Kagan, executive director of the Detroit Zoo, said substandard care was all too common.

“It’s not surprising at all,” Kagan said. “The challenges of animal welfare and safety are something we see at roadside zoos across the nation.”

Zoo owners defended their operations.

“The Reston Zoo is a vibrant, clean facility and takes excellent care of its animal collection,” Eric Mogensen, the owner of the Reston Zoo, wrote in an e-mail. “We host well over 100,000 people a year, and are proud to be a fixture of Fairfax County.”

‘We didn’t know what we were doing’

Goats are among the animals in the petting barn at Reston Zoo in Reston, Va. Owner Eric Mogensen and his daughter, Meghan, were charged with multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Ashley Rood testified in a Fairfax County courtroom that she grew increasingly horrified as she realized what had befallen the Reston Zoo’s injured wallaby in 2012. The keeper said she found a bucket of water next to Parmesan’s open cage.

Rood said she leapt into a nearby dumpster and ripped open a trash bag. Inside, she told a judge, she discovered the wallaby’s body, dripping with water. Parmesan had been drowned.

When confronted, Meghan Mogensen, then 26, the zoo’s director and Eric Mogensen’s daughter, said that her father wanted Parmesan euthanized and that he could do whatever he wanted with his “property,” Rood testified.

The testimony helped secure Meghan Mogensen’s conviction for animal cruelty, and a federal administrative complaint filed by the USDA this summer alleges that it was just one of a constellation of problems at small zoos run by the family.

The Mogensens are the area’s largest operator of small zoos, responsible for the care of hundreds of animals. In addition to the Reston Zoo, Eric Mogensen owns Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge, Va., about two hours from Reston, and his father, Karl, owns the neighboring Natural Bridge Zoo.

All three zoos have been cited by federal regulators and criticized by animal welfare groups in recent years and past decades. The family has consistently disputed the allegations.

Reston Zoo has 30 acres of attractions, typical of small zoos in the area. Kids seem to enjoy the safari rides and the petting barn. But a federal complaint filed against Eric and Meghan Mogensen in June says that the zoo’s violations of the Animal Welfare Act were “great” and that the pair demonstrated a “lack of concern” for animals.

Rood said in an interview that keepers with little or no relevant experience were asked to care for sick animals — and even manage births. She said some animals suffered and died as a result.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Rood said. “We were reading books and going on the Internet to try to figure out what to do.”

Zebra and Canada geese graze at the Reston Zoo in Reston, Va. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The federal complaint alleges that keepers placed an African crested porcupine, native to a warm climate, outside as the temperature plummeted to 8 degrees one day in January 2014. Hours later, Mr. Quills collapsed, but the zoo did not send him to a veterinarian. Keepers treated the porcupine with medicinal fluids that were past their expiration date. He died hours later.

Two years earlier, the complaint alleges, the zoo waited about two weeks to get veterinary treatment for a spider monkey suffering from frostbite, despite lesions covering Jethro’s hands and feet. The animal had to be euthanized.

Diarrhea, lameness and eye conditions in other animals allegedly were not treated properly, according to the complaint.

Eric Mogensen wrote in e-mails that the zoo is contesting all the allegations. He also wrote that the zoo has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading the facilities.

“Most of the USDA citations were a direct result of employees who were then terminated after the fact,” Mogensen wrote.

At the Natural Bridge Zoo, run by Mogensen’s father, Karl, the main mission is to nurture exotic species. But this past spring, federal inspectors found more than 40 animals in need of veterinary care, including camels with weeping lesions and a llama with a mass under its jaw.

The inspections followed an undercover investigation by the Humane Society. Inspectors played Karl Mogensen a video, shot by the Humane Society investigator, that shows keepers jabbing a De Brazza’s monkey with sticks and joking, as they transfer it between cages, according to an inspector’s report. At one point, Karl Mogensen’s daughter is seen holding the monkey by the tail, as it flails wildly and knocks things over.

After watching the video, Karl Mogensen told the inspector that the handling of the monkey seemed “primitive” and “unprofessional,” according to inspection reports. The state briefly shut down the zoo this spring. Mogen­sen’s daughter did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Karl Mogensen said he had corrected every problem identified by inspectors.

“The general public, while well meaning and with the best of intentions, is easily influenced by the never ending rhetoric and constant attack by these radical groups constantly bombarding zoos, farmers and any one keeping or raising animals,” Mogensen wrote in a statement.

‘They ran [the zoo] into the ground’

Bears pace in their cage at Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun, Md. The two European brown bears were born at the zoo. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

A tiger cub at a larger zoo might occupy a habitat with trees, water and grass, but records show that in 2010, Plumpton Park Zoo in Northeastern Maryland put Sheva in a home so small she could barely turn around: a dog crate in a kitchen.

The tiger had ready access to human medications and a trash can in the home, was fed the wrong diet and received inadequate veterinary care, reports show. Her bright orange coat became infested with fleas and her bones brittle from anemia.

Federal laws have been enacted and zoo inspectors employed to curb such neglect, but the citations issued to Plumpton Park Zoo, in Rising Sun, carried no immediate penalties and were largely ignored, a volunteer said in e-mails sent to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In desperation, she asked the animal rights group for help.

Sheva’s “size is part of what scares me,” the volunteer wrote. “She was 50 lbs. in February. It is now June and she is still living in a residence.”

The plea came too late. Sheva died soon after at just 10 months. An inspector concluded that her care was a factor. A necropsy found plastic in her stomach and calluses from rib fractures.

The care provided to Sheva and other animals was poor, the zoo’s owner, Ed Plumstead, acknowledged in a documentary. Plumstead said he had made mistakes in hiring staff to run the zoo.

“They ran [the zoo] into the ground,” Plumstead said in the film. He did not respond to requests for comments.

A complaint filed against the zoo over the tiger’s treatment and other issues was not settled until August, five years later. The zoo agreed to provide animals with the most basic of care: adequate food, water and shelter.

Between Sheva’s death and the complaint’s resolution, the zoo was sold and violations were found under the new owners. The new owners did not respond to requests for comment.

Animal welfare groups said the case highlights deficiencies with the regulatory system: Federal authorities are too slow to act, and penalties are too few and not severe enough to deter repeat offenses.

“Investigations often take years to wend their way through the legal process, and in the meantime, licenses are automatically renewed every year as long as the licensee sends in a renewal fee — even if the facility . . . is under investigation, has charges pending, or has paid hefty fines,” said Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife manager for the Humane Society of the United States.

A duck cools off in a portable pool at Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun, Md. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

A bear in its cage at Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun, Md. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Under federal law, inspectors with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspect zoos, circuses, animal sanctuaries and other facilities that display animals to the public. There are 97 inspectors for about 7,500 facilities across the country, according to APHIS.

Inspectors check whether zoos are complying with the Animal Welfare Act, which provides minimal standards for the care of animals. If inspectors uncover a problem, the zoo is given a warning and a certain time frame to comply.

If the problem is serious and continues, the zoo can be referred for investigation and a possible administrative law proceeding. A judge can then impose penalties, such as fines and license suspensions.

The USDA inspector general’s office criticized zoo enforcement in its most recent audit, a decade ago. It said APHIS was “not aggressively” pursuing violators in the eastern half of the United States.

The audit found the number of suspected violators referred for enforcement in the region dropped from 209 in 2002 to 82 in 2004. More recent figures provided by APHIS show that the number dropped to 32 in 2012. The figure rebounded to 91 in 2013, fell to 53 in 2014 and climbed back to 111 through the first half of 2015.

APHIS officials said working with violators rather than punishing them is a better way to ensure the best care for animals.

The Animal Care Unit (AC) “has expanded the range of tools it uses to promote compliance with the [Animal Welfare Act] — including collaborative efforts with regulated entities,” Ed Curtlett, director of public affairs wrote in an e-mail. “AC has found that these tools are effective means of ensuring sustained, long-term compliance with the AWA.”

The jaguar attacked

Deborah Gregory had only recently started working at Catoctin Zoo in Frederick County, Md., when she was tasked with cleaning the dens of Diego and Evita, the zoo’s jaguars.

The ensuing encounter, in January 2009, was one of a series of incidents that allegedly put workers and visitors at local zoos in harm’s way or created potentially dangerous situations.

Gregory managed to herd the cats into an outdoor pen, a dangerous task. But as she was working, Diego opened the sliding door that separated them.

The jaguar attacked.

Co-workers who heard her cries ran to help. One grabbed a fire extinguisher and blasted Diego to drive him away. Gregory was rushed to the hospital with bite injuries to her face and torso.

An inspector faulted Gregory and the zoo, saying that she had failed to secure the door but that an experienced keeper should have been supervising the new hire as required by law. Catoctin reached a settlement with federal authorities, agreeing to pay a $12,000 fine, but did not have to admit fault in the attack.

Richard Hahn, the zoo’s owner, said the mauling was a result of human error. Hahn said the zoo had given Gregory adequate preparation for the job. “It was a terrible tragedy,” he said.

Safety lapses at small zoos can also put the public at risk. On at least four occasions, animals have escaped from their pens at small Maryland and Virginia zoos over the past decade, sometimes wreaking havoc. In addition, federal inspectors also have found 12 broken or poorly constructed enclosures for lions, tigers and other dangerous animals; some have gone unrepaired for years. Children were allowed to get dangerously close to — or touch — tigers on two occasions.

Patrons Lauren Tangney, 21, left, Sarah Larkworthy feed parakeets at the Reston Zoo in Reston, Va. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A Burmese python on display at the Reston Zoo in Reston, Va. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Natural Bridge Zoo’s licenses were suspended in 2007, in part because two 400-pound Asiatic bears escaped after a keeper left a latch undone — and one crashed through the window of a nearby home.

At Tri-State Zoological Park in Cumberland, Md., enclosures for lions and tigers were so poorly constructed that an inspector concluded in 2006 that the “animals could easily enter the visitor area at this time.” The problem persisted for five years. The zoo’s owner said the cages were well constructed.

An administrative law judge found in 2013 that Tri-State had failed to operate safely when a tour guide led a group right up to the enclosures of three tigers and a lion. A federal inspector, who was looking on, later reported that children had reached through the bars and petted the young tigers.

The federal inspector stopped the tour and asked to speak with the zoo’s owner.

When the owner, Robert Candy, showed up, he offered an explanation that took the inspector aback, according to court documents, which reported that “Mr. Candy told [the inspector] that he encouraged contact by the public with the tigers to keep them friendly.”

A zoo volunteer later disputed that the children had contact with the tigers, and Candy told a judge that the inspector had misinterpreted what he said, that he meant closer interaction with the tigers, not touching them.

Nevertheless, Candy admitted that he and members of his volunteer staff had no formal training in the care and keeping of exotic animals other than attending a single “big cat symposium,” although he had worked with animals for years.

Candy said that his staff is dedicated and the zoo well run but that he believes the rough look of his zoo has made him a target for inspectors. Some tigers are kept in old swimming pools. The burned shell of an old building, where 100 animals died in a fire in 2006, greets visitors near the zoo’s entrance.

Candy said his resources go into caring for animals that are abandoned.

“We are not the prettiest zoo,” Candy said. “But our main goal is to rescue animals.”