RIVERSIDE: FBI investigating pheasant theft as ecoterrorism

John Asbury
Riverside Press-Enterprise


Theresa Fitzgerald with one of her remaining pheasants in the aviary at her Riverside home on Friday, August 2, 2013. Fitzgerald had vandals break into the aviary and release pheasants, some were killed and other had to be put down and some are still missing from her and her husband’s Ash Grove Pheasant Farm.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating the vandalism of a Riverside pheasant farm after an extremist animal rights group took responsibility for stealing the birds.

Members of the Animal Liberation Front, known as ALF, said they used wire cutters the night of July 22 to enter the property of the Ash Grove Pheasant Farm and Orchard in Riverside to steal and release more than a dozen pheasants being kept in an aviary.

The ALF detailed the operation Wednesday on its website.

“As the farmer slept just feet away, the fencing was torn open with wire cutters. Four of the six pens on the property were breached, giving these beautiful beings a chance at freedom,” the post states.

“This life saving action took no specialized skill, less than twenty-four hours of planning, and fifty dollars. With basic tools and determination, anyone is capable of destroying the barrier that stands between an animal and their freedoms.”

Farm owners Don and Theresa Fitzgerald offered a different account. They say they awoke to find their coop open, a pile of feathers outside their property where they believe a coyote ate one of the birds, one loose pheasant in their yard, and of the nine birds left in the aviary, some had been so spooked and injured that they had to be euthanized.

Three other birds came back outside their property chirping, but the most exotic birds are still missing.

“I cannot believe these people truly love animals if they’re just going to let these birds out to fend for themselves in the wild,” Theresa Fitzgerald said through tears. “To me that’s cruelty. These birds don’t deserve what these people did to them.”

The burglary was initially reported to Riverside police as grand theft, but was later turned over to the FBI.

FBI agents are investigating the burglary as a case of domestic terrorism by ALF, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.

The ALF has a history of hundreds of incidents of vandalism and violent acts, including fires and even car bombs in some cases in order to free animals or target locations that keep animals in captivity, according to the FBI.

Authorities told the couple that they were targeted through a Department of Fish and Wildlife business license used to sell the birds.

The couple had been raising pheasants for the past year. They kept most of the birds as pets, but sold ring-necked pheasants to hunters. They also bred the birds and sold eggs and chicks to selective buyers as pets, Fitzgerald said.

The ringnecked pheasants were being sold for $75 to $100, though some breeds can fetch up to $300 per bird.

Fitzgerald returned to the aviary Friday morning where the remaining pheasants rested on her arm and shoulder as she fed them meal worms.

She said they keep a clean pen, properly medicate the birds and give them two different kinds of feed.

The couple plans to keep the birds as pets, but will stop selling pheasants, Fitzgerald said.

She now worries that the ALF will target their home again. Authorities told them to invest in alarms and cameras for the property.

“I’m not only frightened for my safety, I’m fearful for these birds who are tamed as pets,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re happy here, why should they be let loose and have coyotes eat them?”

The ALF urged its members on its website to target pheasant farms and other targets again.

A spokesman for the ALF from Los Angeles, Dr. Jerry Vlasak, who is not a member, defended the actions to support the ALF’s ideology and take action to free animals in captivity and sold for hunting ranches.

“I have no reason to believe they won’t be targeted again. They now know where it is and it wouldn’t surprise me,” Vlasak said. “The ultimate goal is the liberation of animals in confinement who are suffering and stop these people from doing this again.”

The group dismisses claims of terrorism and said it saves animals’ lives. He said animal lives are doomed in captivity, but should be given a chance to survive in the wild, even if they’re exposed to traffic or other elements.

“Terrorism is thrown around a lot these days. It’s disrespectful to the victims of Boston or New York. Terrorism is flying planes into buildings, not setting animals free,” Vlasak said.