Three rare otters were stolen from an animal sanctuary in North Carolina last month, taken in the dead of night as one employee heard a “high-pitched scream” from the enclosure.
The Animal Edventures Sanctuary in Coats is mourning the loss of its North American river otter trio, Sigmund, Nessy, and Ned. All three disappeared from their outdoor exhibit on February 25 without a trace.
“We don’t really know the motivation,” sanctuary spokesperson Cory Freeman told Motherboard on the phone.
This is the first time the facility has experienced such a theft.
A Wednesday report from the Associated Press originally misstated the otters had been stolen twice before (and has since been corrected), but Freeman said that figure referred to two cases at other animal sanctuaries.
Freeman was on site when the otters were taken, at roughly 2 AM, and heard a shrill scream. Following the shriek came 10 seconds of silence, “then all the peacocks alerted [with their call],” Freeman recalled.
The sanctuary does not believe the otters escaped themselves.
It’s unclear how the culprit(s) entered the enclosure, but Freeman said it was secured by locks that require “manual dexterity” to open, and that it would have involved “some strategy and forethought.”
Otter trafficking is a known issue in Southeast Asian countries but primarily targets other species such as the Eurasian otter.
Freeman has no idea if the incentive was monetary, or whether the theft was “strictly vandalism or some sort of extremist act.”
North American river otters were once the target of hunting and over-trapping for their fur, and were virtually extinct in parts of North Carolina by the late 1930s. Their populations are now monitored throughout the US, though North Carolina does allow hunting of the species.
The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the matter, according to a Wednesday report by the Charlotte Observer.
The sanctuary is asking that anyone with information about the theft to come forward. Animal Edventures Sanctuary opened 18 years ago as an “exotic wildlife” site, according to the Charlotte Observer. It houses 200 animals, many of which it says were formerly pets.
“That somebody would take a mission of kindness and turn it upside down,” Freeman said.
“We’re basically looking in every direction we possibly can at this point,” Freeman said. “Their welfare is our first and foremost concern. They’re magnificent animals.”