A bobcat was stolen from a Chattanooga nature center sometime after employees left Monday evening and before they returned Tuesday morning, according to Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center President Mark McKnight.
There is video and photo evidence that has been turned over to police. However, the suspects are unable to be identified from either the photo or video. The nature center has added additional cameras to the property in case anyone returns.
Thieves also tried to steal a bald eagle, according to McKnight, but were unsuccessful. The eagle appears to be unharmed, but the bobcat is missing and presumed stolen for the illegal exotic pet trade. The enclosures for both showed signs of a break-in.
The nonprofit nature center located off Cummings Highway along Lookout Creek provides shelter for animals that can't be reintroduced into the wild; all are injured, part of species survival plans or can't be reintroduced because of other circumstances. The center is also home to red wolves, a red fox, sandhill cranes and other animals.
The nature center staff believes the animal is now part of the exotic pet trade but is also concerned someone may try to release it into the wild.
"She would have difficulty successfully surviving in the wild and her survival is at stake," according to McKnight. "She is not a domestic animal and while she has been imprinted on humans, she does not behave like a house cat and is not suitable as a pet. Holding wildlife such as a bobcat in captivity is also illegal under Tennessee law."
Nature center personnel have filed a police report and consulted with other agencies, including the National Park Service, to help find the animal. The park service patrols the federal land surrounding the nature center's property.
The nature center is offering a $500 reward for information leading to the return of the bobcat. Anyone with information is asked to call reflection riding staff member Taylor Berry, who cares for the animal, at 423-309-9969.
"We go through a rigorous annual permitting process with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and meet all requirements for enclosure standards and safety," McKnight wrote in an email. "Her only suitable home is back in captivity with us. Our bobcat is a wonderful addition to our animal ambassador team and our staff have spent countless hours working with her. We need the community's support to help locate her and bring her back home to safety."
This article was updated to correct that Reflection Riding is off Cummings Highway.