Three river otters stolen from animal sanctuary in North Carolina

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pixonaut/iStock(COATS, N.C.) -- Police are looking for three river otters apparently stolen from their habitat at a North Carolina animal sanctuary.

Caretakers at Animal Edventures Sanctuary in Coats, North Carolina, about 30 miles south of Raleigh, awoke Monday morning to find the door to its otter enclosure wide open and its three inhabitants missing.

The otters, named Sigmind, Nessy and Ned, have not been seen since Sunday night.

"The latch to their enclosure was completely intact," sanctuary director Cory Freeman told Durham ABC affiliate WTVD-TV. "There was no failure. This is a latch that can only be manipulated manually with a level of dexterity."

Freeman said she isn't sure if the animals were stolen or just let out by someone who might be opposed to the animals being held in captivity.

No other cages or habitats were tampered with, though, Freeman said.

The sanctuary has operated for 18 years in the same location and is home to more than 200 animals once held as pets. While the sanctuary is home to many common pets, like dogs, cats and farm animals, it also is home to a two-toed sloth, African serval cat, ostrich, capuchin monkey and others.

It is a member of the Humane Society and educates the public on conservation.

River otters are sometimes kept as pets, but they need a large habitat, with water, to thrive.

"It saddens me to report that one of the most wonderful and rare of native species on the property were stolen this week sparking an investigation and search to reunite the three unfortunate river otters with their care taker at the animal sanctuary," a spokesperson for Animal Edventures said in a statement.

"River otters are some of the rarest native wildlife in America, as their numbers have drastically reduced over recent years due to deforestation along waterways where they normally thrive," the spokesperson added.

North American river otters are still listed under "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

"We don't know if this is motivated by money, we don't know if this was motivated by an extremist group that feels like all animals should be free," Freeman told WTVD. "Are they being properly cared for? Does this person even know what they eat and what they need? They're not a creature that you can just put in a cage. ... It's devastating."

The Harnett County Sheriff's Office is investigating the disappearance of the otters.

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