PORT ORANGE, Fla. – A Florida woman is accused of intentionally releasing a falconer's hawk when the owner told her that he'd call the authorities if she didn't return the bird, according to wildlife officials.
Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the red-tailed hawk Nikita escaped from Jayson Linton's home in Orlando on Sept. 8, days before Hurricane Irma swept through the area. The bird was wearing a leash, jesses and anklets when it got loose.
Linton said the 1-year-old bird stayed in a tree during the hurricane but, after the third day, he lost sight of her. He said he knew Nikita would eventually return home.
"When you have a relationship with a bird like this, it's a trust thing," Linton said.
Officials said Sherrie Wentworth, the owner of East Coast Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, in Port Orange, found the bird on Sept. 14 in an industrial park near Linton's home and took her back to the wildlife facility, where it was determined that the bird was not injured.
Linton said after he learned that Wentworth had his bird, he got deputies and FWC involved, to explain to Wentworth that he is the permitted owner and he wanted Nikita, his trained falconry raptor, back home.
"We all went together. Well, she admitted to FWC that she found out that a falconer was coming to get the bird and she released it out her back door," Linton said.
Wentworth did not attempt to locate the owner or contact FWC before she released the bird on Sept. 16, according to the report.
"This first case happened last week we were called out to save this poor Red tail hung up in a tree in a industrial park. Thank the guys that saw this poor girl. A Falconer lost her. I'm not for a sport that could hurt the animals!! Lucky for this case we arrived in time. I released the bird to be free where hopefully she will never have contact again with humans," the East Coast Wildlife Rehabilitation Center posted on its Facebook page on Sept. 17.
Authorities charged Wentworth with theft in connection with the incident, but records show it's not her first wildlife-related run-in with the law.
In 2015, Wentworth was fined for having a female tiger on her property without a permit, according to reports.
Wentworth's attorney was unable to comment much on the case but said, "We dispute the allegation (that) it was after Wentworth received the phone call from Linton that she let the (hawk) go."
Linton said he hasn't seen Nikita since she was released last year.
"Nikita was a great bird. Maybe this will open (Wentworth's) eyes at some point. Maybe she'll start following the rules and regulations on rehabbing in situations like this," Linton said.
On Thursday, Wentworth's attorney Julianne Morris said if her client lost her permit it would affect thousands of animals that Wentworth has nursed back to health.
"She is a very kindhearted animal loving woman and she just wants animals to be free and happy and well taken care of," Morris said.
Morris said the facility has been around for at least six years and is the only rehab center for wildlife in Volusia County. While Morris said she can't talk about the facts of the case, she said she and Wentworth are looking forward to their day in court.