Smuggled owl’s story hatches years later

The San Francisco Zoo has revealed that an owl in its care was smuggled into the country disguised as an Easter egg before being rescued by a sting operation.

The origins of Athena, a protected Eurasian eagle owl, have been kept secret for more than two years because she was evidence in a trans-Atlantic trial, which involved corrupt falconers in Europe and the United States, according to a press release by Zoo spokeswoman Gwendolyn Tornatore.

But today, officials from the zoo and U.S. Fish and Wildlife will finally tell her story in full, aspart of an educational campaign about the plight of raptors. The trial recently has resulted in a sentencing, so Athena can finally be officially turned over to the zoo, the release said.

Athena came to the country as an egg in April or May 2005, one of 15 eggs illegally transported from Europe by smuggler Jeffrey Diaz of Redwood City, according to the zoo’s release and news reports of the time.

The eggs he transported had been painted as Easter eggs with commercial egg dyes, and transported in baskets on commercial airliners.

<p>The eggs were kept warm with hot-water bottles that had been placed under the wrappings of the Easter baskets. However, in the nest, owls typically turn their eggs every hour to keep their temperature consistent, the release states.

Since the incubation conditions in the baskets were poor, only three of the 15 eggs survived. One of those resulting owlets was Athena. After she and the other owls were seized from Diaz’s home as part of the undercover Operation Easter Basket, she was sent to the San Francisco Zoo, where she has lived for two years, traveling to schools to educate students about raptors.

In November 2006, Diaz pleaded guilty to four felony counts of smuggling. Eagle owls are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, according to the U.S. Department of justice.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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