Sammy the bald eagle has had a hard life.
When he was about 4, he lost his ability to fly. He was illegally shot in the wing in 1988, disabling him for life. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rescued Sammy, but his right wing had to be partially amputated, and so he was taken to the Quogue Wildlife Refuge on Long Island to live out the rest of his years. There, he would be fed and cared for, and would become the most popular resident.
And then – more than 30 years later – he would be birdnapped.
It happened in the dead of night last week, a few days after the Quogue Wildlife Refuge held a charity gala. A man snuck into the refuge on Tuesday, sometime between 2:15 a.m. and 4:15 a.m., and cut a hole in two layers of fencing to reach Sammy’s cage, somehow managing to snatch the 35-year-old federally protected bird from his habitat. Surveillance video captured the man walking briskly through the parking lot, appearing to carry the eagle in a bag or a blanket.
In the morning, staff at the wildlife refugee were horrified.
“OUR BALD EAGLE WAS TAKEN AND IS MISSING!” the refuge wrote in an urgent Facebook post that day. “He will be stressed and cannot survive without our care. We want him back unharmed.”
Now, nearly a week later, Sammy is still missing.
On Saturday, a cadre of police and animal welfare officials in Suffolk County, New York, gathered to urge the eagle thief to come forward, offering a $12,500 reward to anybody with information leading to the suspect’s arrest. Quogue Village Police Chief Christopher Isola said during the news conference that authorities had searched all across the region and “into several states” as they chased down leads. But still, they have had no luck.
Marisa Nelson, program director of the Quogue Wildlife Refuge who has handled Sammy since 2003, told News 12 Long Island she was surprised anyone could even manage to grab the bird, given his talons and strength. Not even the staff picks him up, she said. Though he lives in captivity, Sammy is not “tamed,” she said. Michael Nelson, the director of the wildlife refuge, added that Sammy has a special diet and won’t survive without the care he needs – or in the wild, since he can’t fly. He likes eating large rodents and freshly caught fish, according to his bio, as well as taking long baths. Marisa Nelson described him as a “wise old bird” who’s talkative with visitors.
She told Newsday on Friday that the staff is growing more concerned by the hour.
“It’s terrible to worry when you don’t know what to worry about,” she said. “We don’t know if he’s alive and well somewhere or if he’s not. We are trying to keep hope. We’re getting a lot of emotional support from the community because a lot of people cared about this bird.”
The reward for information leading to the suspect comes from Suffolk County Crime Stoppers and the Suffolk and Nassau County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It’s a federal crime to possess a bald eagle without a permit – or even to possess a single bald eagle feather. Penalties are stiff for people who harm the nation’s most symbolic bird, which became the national emblem in 1782. Though the bird is no longer endangered, it’s still federally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which carries a fine of up to $100,000 and one year imprisonment for those who harm or kill them.
In 2017, for example, Allen Thacker was sentenced to a month of house arrest, 100 hours of community service at a wildlife refuge and $2,000 in fines and restitution after he shot an eagle because he was “upset it had been hunting and taking fish from a pond located on his property,” federal authorities said. Then he made sure the eagle was dead by running it over with his all-terrain vehicle multiple times.
In 2012, when Stephen Voisine shot and killed an eagle while hunting, a federal judge told him, “I would have believed you were intoxicated [when you shot the eagle] because it was so stupid,” the Bangor Daily News reported. He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison for shooting the bird, and for one count of illegal possession of a firearm.
Nelson told News 12 Long Island that she could only speculate why someone would want to take Sammy, whether it was because someone wanted him as a pet or “wanted the parts for the black market.” It’s also a federal crime to sell or buy any part of an eagle, feathers included, under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
“There’s no good reason to steal a bald eagle,” she said. “Until we find out who did it, we won’t know why they did it.”
Since Sammy’s kidnapping, messages of support for the eagle have been pouring in from children who wrote on ribbons and tied them to his enclosure, according to the wildlife refuge.
“We miss you Sammy,” one child wrote. “We will try to find you.”
“Dear Sammy I hope you are okay,” said another.
One girl was particularly upset, promising that “I will never like the person who stole you.”