3 rare otters are kidnapped from NC animal sanctuary, leading to a desperate search

A North Carolina animal sanctuary says someone broke into the facility and swiped examples of “the most wonderful and rare of native species on the property”: three North American River Otters.

The trio were taken under cover of darkness on Feb. 25 from the North Carolina Animal Ed.Ventures Sanctuary, said the sanctuary in a press release. The site in Coats is about 40 miles south of Raleigh.

The stolen critters, weighing between 18 to 25 pounds, are named Sigmund, Nessy, and Ned.

“River otters are some of the rarest native wildlife in America, as their numbers have drastically reduced over recent years due to deforestation along waterways where they normally thrive,” park spokeswoman Shelley Metzger told the Charlotte Observer.

“A case in which someone would selectively steal river otters among all the possible animals and leaving all others undisturbed is especially curious.”

Sanctuary Director Cory Freeman said in a release that workers found the entrance gate and animal enclosure gate open, indicating it was a theft rather than an escape.

Freeman told WTVD the sanctuary isn’t sure what motives the thieves had in taking the otters.

“We don’t know if this is motivated by money, we don’t know if this was motivated by an extremist group that feels like all animals should be free,” she told the station. “Are they being properly cared for? Does this person even know what they eat and what they need? They’re not a creature that you can just put in a cage.

“It’s devastating,” Freeman added, according to WTVD.

The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office is investigating and among the clues is “an oddly high pitched burst of noise in the middle of the night,” that may indicate when the animals were taken, said the sanctuary press release.

The site has a perimeter fence as well as individual animal enclosures, officials said.

Animal Ed.Ventures Sanctuary opened 18 years ago as an “exotic wildlife” site and is “home to 200 animals once kept as pets,” said a release.

The sanctuary’s goal is to teach wildlife conservation, while offering homes to at-risk exotic animals that faced jeopardy or were being illegally held, officials told the Observer.

“Our main concern is the welfare and safety of our animals -- otters have very specialized needs and we are worried sick,” Freeman said in a release.

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.