HUBERT, ONSLOW COUNTY - Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Hubert is home to many animals, including four Screech Owls. But two of those birds were stolen from the property, and investigators said they are searching for the thief.
The dependent creatures, used for educational purposes, were stolen on April 17, said Toni O'Neal, director of the sanctuary.
"At that point my heart just dropped, " said O'Neil. "I mean, we're all just about crying. Our owls are gone. They're so small, we just thought for sure they had been killed."
O'Neil said she alerted authorities and eventually sent out mass emails about what happened. She said she got a call from the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport within an hour.
The two owls were found on the doorsteps of the Newport facility with an anonymous note, O'Neal said.
"The note that was left with [the owls] kind of indicated they could not take care of them anymore, because who keeps mice in their freezer?" said O'Neal. "I feel very violated; I feel like somebody violated our trust."
According to O'Neal, the birds were malnourished when they were discovered.
"'[They were] very stressed, they were hiding, they were making displays of being scared," O'Neil told NewsChannel 12.
The owls were returned to the Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary on April 27.
O'Neil said both the Onslow County Sheriff's Office and the Jacksonville Police Department are investigating this case in hopes of finding the person responsible.
"It's a federal offense," said O'Neil. "This really is the value of the bird. It's a larceny; whoever gets caught is going to deal with a federal crime."
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, owls are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Any permit to lethally control these species would need to be issued from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and would only be issued in very extreme cases.
O'Neil said sanctuary workers have already installed hinges and heavy locks on all animal cages. Facility officials are asking for donations to help purchase a quality surveillance system.
If you would like to help, visit their website at www.possumwoodacres.org.