Smuggled owl secretly kept at SF Zoo

July 11, 2008 8:30:38 AM PDT
It is not uncommon for the federal government to put someone in a witness protection program, but how about an animal? Well, that's exactly what happened to an owl at the San Francisco Zoo. Sometimes, the best place to hide a secret is right out in the open.

She's a Eurasian eagle owl named Athena and she has been at the zoo for almost three years. You'd think she was just another attraction at the San Francisco Zoo, but she was, in fact, a piece of federal evidence.

"With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we see a lot of strange cases. You kind of throw out the book on normal," says Special Agent Sean Mann.

Mann works under cover, but on Thursday, he formally transferred Athena to the zoo, after a smuggling case unlike that of any owl, or perhaps any bird.

The plan was devious, but brilliant. A smuggler dyed 15 eggs, put them in an Easter basket, and flew them across the Atlantic. Of those 15 eggs, only three survived.

"My reaction is that if he expected the eggs to hatch, he was being really optimistic. That is essentially a death sentence, to dye an egg that way," says Harrison Edell of the San Francisco Zoo.

Eurasian eagle owls are not endangered. The federal government has regulations about importing them because they can carry disease. A live bird can bring in $5,000.

When agent Mann made his case in Fresno, there were three owls in the smuggler's house.

"His intention was to bring in the owls, successfully hatch them, and then sell them," says Mann.

The smuggler, Jeff Diaz of Redwood City, is now in federal prison. As for Athena, the zoo will be home now.

"She wasn't in her nest to watch her parents fly, learn how to hunt, be with her siblings. She didn't grow up as a normal owl. There's no way she can be returned to the wild," says Vicci Nappi from the San Francisco Zoo.

The zoo figures she will live about 60 years. Nevertheless, Athena did beat the odds -- twice.


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