Update: The fake Craigslist ad and theft turned out to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Josue Santiago, head of the We Care Wildlife Sanctuary. The 36 missing animals were dropped off by Santiago at a refuge in North Carolina last weekend before he returned to Miami to stage the burglary. This week, he was arrested and charged with false reporting of a crime. As for the animals, detectives assured the Guardian “All animals are safe and being attended to”.
The sanctuary was being investigated by the Florida fish and wildlife commission and had previously had exotic animals under its care taken away. It is believed Santiago pulled off this bizarre stunt to dodge further sanctions on the remaining animals.
Seven ring-tailed lemurs, five marmosets, four monkeys, seven birds, and 13 tortoises have gone missing from the We Care Wildlife Sanctuary in Miami, Florida after a mysterious fake advert told people to go in and help themselves to the exotic animals.
The ad was posted on Craigslist by a user posing as the nonprofit. Word for word, it read: “Free exotic animals. We’re a sanctuary going out of business. Go around back and help yourself.” Clearly, someone took them up on this generous offer, sneaking into the park at night and swiping 36 of the sanctuary’s most valuable animals. Altogether, the animals are worth a staggering $53,000.
While detectives are currently on the case, attempting to return the lost animals and determine the culprits and cause of the crime ASAP, the staff at the sanctuary have their suspicions.
Cindy Robert, a volunteer at the park, told reporters that she believes robbers used insider intel to plan the heist. The owners of the nonprofit had received threats before the theft and We Care's Facebook page was hacked a week beforehand. She thinks the ad on Craigslist claiming the We Care Wildlife Sanctuary was facing financial difficulties was just a smokescreen.
Contrary to what the ad suggests, the sanctuary has been doing extremely well and is undergoing a period of expansion. Shortly before the unfortunate episode, the nonprofit had moved to a larger premise. Hence, there were no security cameras to record the crime.
Police in Miami have been investigating the theory that the theft was part of an elaborate plan specifically looking to steal high-value animals that would attract the attention of dealers who work in the exotic animal trade. They are offering up a reward of $1,000 for anyone who can help return the missing animals to the sanctuary.
Meanwhile, the staff are understandably concerned for the welfare of their animals, who were already under a lot of stress because of the move. Some of the critters that got snatched were also on medication and need special attention.
“I don’t think these animals are going to be taken care of. The stress alone could give some of them heart attacks,” said Robert.
“They’d have had to chase the animals around and net them, and put them in cages, and that puts them under even more stress. We have a tortoise that’s on antibiotics for a cold and needs injections every three days.”
Also missing is an umbrella cockatoo who has food regression and could starve within days if her food is not properly prepared.
“Please, just bring them back,” Robert added, “'cause they need to be safe and cared for properly.”