WYNNEWOOD — Authorities in Garvin County are trying to determine whether a man went too far in protesting the G.W. Interactive Zoological Park after a chinchilla was found dead near the park's entrance and another was abandoned inside the zoo's gift shop.
The bizarre incident, which played out Sunday while the park in Wynnewood was open to the public, is under investigation by the Garvin County sheriff's office.
Law enforcement and zoo officials are blaming the chinchilla's death on unnamed animal rights activists.
Zoo Manager John Reinke said park visitors who saw the incident unfold Sunday told him that a man, woman and apparently some children were making some kind of video showing a dead chinchilla near the park's entrance.
“The witnesses we have ... they said they heard them saying, ‘Look at this dead chinchilla we found at the G.W. zoo,'” Reinke said. “Some time after that, a guy came in with another chinchilla and asked if we could take it ... that he was moving and couldn't take care of it anymore.”
Reinke said the zoo “didn't really want it or need it” but the man — who wore a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses in the images captured on the park's surveillance cameras — insisted they take the chinchilla.
“He said, ‘What if I make a donation?'” Reinke said. “He went out to his car — he said to get his wallet — but he never came back inside.”
Surveillance footage from the zoo shows the vehicle the man was driving had Nebraska license plates, park officials said.
The footage has been turned over to the sheriff's office, Reinke said.
Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes said his office is investigating the death of the chinchilla as a case of animal cruelty, but noted that federal crimes may have been committed, as well.
“At the least, we appear to have an animal that has been abused and died due to abuse,” Rhodes said. “And there's a federal statute out there — the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act — that may have been violated.
“The FBI will have to decide on that.”
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was signed into law in November 2006 and is designed to give “the Department of Justice the necessary authority to apprehend, prosecute, and convict individuals committing animal enterprise terror,” according to language in the act.
Rhodes said Monday afternoon that he already has contacted the FBI regarding Sunday's incident and that he has “worked with them several times before involving the G.W. animal park.”
The sheriff would not say who exactly authorities were looking for in connection with the Sunday incident or what state appeared to be on the suspect's license plate.
“We're reviewing closed-circuit footage, from the park, as well as some photos taken by the park of the scene,” Rhodes said. “We have an image of the license plate and we're working on that, too.”
Reinke, the park manager, said the chinchilla found dead near the park's entrance was examined by a veterinarian. He said the “preliminary” findings are that the small rodent “was asphyxiated.”
Rhodes said the surviving chinchilla already has been adopted by a local school district.
The G.W. Interactive Zoological Park has long been a target of “animal rights activists,” Rhodes said, although he wasn't sure of the affiliation or motivation of the individuals involved in Sunday's incident in Wynnewood.
“This is not the first time this park has been targeted by what we consider to be animal rights extremists ... this is kind of an ongoing deal,” Rhodes said.
The park in Wynnewood, which houses dozens of big cats and other exotic animals, was founded in 1997 by Francis and Shirley Schreibvogel. The couple's son and the park's namesake, Garold Wayne Schreibvogel, had died the year before in an auto accident.
But over the last several years, the face of the animal park has been Joe Schreibvogel, the couple's other son.
During that time, he's had a less-than-amicable relationship with animal rights groups and others who keep big cats and other exotic animals behind cages.
Earlier this year, Joe Schreibvogel lost a trademark-infringement lawsuit in federal court, a legal defeat that eventually led to him filing for bankruptcy.
“Joe Schreibvogel ... is very passionate about what he does,” Rhodes said. “But on the flip side, these animal rights groups are very passionate about what they do.
“They don't feel like tigers and big cats ... should be displayed in such a manner.”