Police recover animals stolen from city nature center

Animals stolen in two break-ins at the Carrie Murray Nature Center — including turtles, chameleons, geckos, an iguana and a Madagascar hissing cockroach — were recovered Tuesday afternoon and returned safely to the preserve in West Baltimore's Leakin Park.

Police officers and naturalists made two trips to carry boxes and plastic crates from the residence and load them into a Department of Recreation and Parks van. Detectives said a tip led them to juveniles living in a housing complex on Clifton Avenue near the nature center, but charges had not been filed as of Tuesday night.

Authorities said the dozen animals were not harmed, but officials from the Murray center refused to talk to reporters as they hurriedly loaded the van, jumped inside and sped off to reunite the exotic reptiles, lizards and insect with more familiar surroundings. No one answered the phone at the preserve later in the afternoon. The center is named for the mother of Orioles great Eddie Murray, who funded the center.

The quick resolution to the investigation also ended concerns by city police and recreation workers that an employee or volunteer had been responsible for the break-ins. The first occurred between Saturday morning and Monday evening, the second Monday night or Tuesday morning.

In both thefts, city officials said the alarm system had been turned off. In the first-break-in, the person got in through a back door near a balcony. In the second, the burglar entered through an unlocked window.

Over the weekend, 10 animals were stolen — including the cockroach, one of many boxed and sold as pets for $10 in the gift shop — and the iguana named Zena, who had been abused by her former owner and was described as a favorite of neighborhood children. On Tuesday, police reported that two chameleons were taken and that the center's offices had been ransacked and a desk spray-painted.

Naturalists at the center, located on Ridgetop Road at the edge of Leakin Park, said on Monday that they suspected teens because the animals taken were the type people like for pets. More valuable animals, such as hawks and owls, had been left behind.

A police report filed in connection with the first incident noted that "there is an alarm system at the location but the service has been suspended for over two years."

Gwen Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Department of Recreation and Parks, said on Tuesday managers tested the alarm and checked service contracts. She said the alarm works and all bills have been paid, but someone had turned the alarm off. It was unclear for how long the alarm system had been shut down.

That prompted police suspicions on Tuesday morning that the theft was an inside job, and they said so publicly. But later that afternoon, someone called 911 and reported seeing children take animals into the residence in the 5000 block of Clifton Ave. The caller recognized the animals from descriptions on the news.

Police went to the location, which is in walking distance of the back of the nature preserve, and found the animals and other items that had been taken. Officers were seen carrying out several backpacks and large blankets, along with the animals.


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