ORLANDO, Fla. – Onlookers watched in disbelief as a man batted away a mother and father swan at Lake Eola, grabbed their recently hatched babies and tossed them into a red cooler, according to witnesses and video of the incident.
Frank Howard said he and his fiancé were at Lake Eola Park Sunday evening admiring the swan family with two babies, known as cygnets, when a man approached carrying a red cooler. The man, wearing athletic wear and sneakers, told Howard he worked for “Lake Eola Park” and was taking the cygnets to protect them from wildlife.
“He reached down and grabbed one, and the mom started going crazy and he hit the mom with the cooler,” Howard said. “He was saying, ‘Yeah, we rescue them all the time. I’ve done this many times, look at my arms are all scratched up from the fathers attacking me.’”
Howard said they continued to ask him questions but thought he was legitimately trying to protect the young wildlife. The man even told Howard to take pictures before he took the cygnets.
Howard said his fiancé has been crying ever since.
“The mother looks so sad now because she don’t have her baby and they were so cute, adorable,” Howard said. “We’re sad because we didn’t think, we like to believe in humanity in people and not everybody is bad, so we were hoping the guy was good, he was really doing it for a reason. But after he took them, we realized nothing made sense.”
Video captured by Howard showed the man used the small cooler to bat at the angry swans as he walked into their nest where three unhatched eggs also remained. The man then plucked the fluffy gray-and-white cygnets from the nest, tossing them into the cooler and shutting the lid, according to the video.
One of the swans, angry at the theft, continued to hiss at the man and followed him. In response, he hit the swan in the face with the cooler now containing the baby swans, video shows.
Onlookers were yelling at the man to stop but Howard and his girlfriend, believing his story, told them the man was trying to protect the swans.
“They won’t be here tomorrow. They’re OK. They will be dead tomorrow, I know that. I work for Lake Eola,” he said to the crowd. “Trust me, I’ve done this time and time again.”
Howard said the man did not have any protective gear nor tools nor assistance.
On Monday, after calling the Lake Eola Park ranger, the couple learned there is no legitimate swan rescue that removes baby swans from nests. Howard said he reported the incident to the Orlando Police Department and learned a detective is investigating the possible theft.
As of Monday evening, the two cygnets had been located and recovered by Orlando police detectives. The babies will be reunited with their parents.
Orlando police obtained a warrant Tuesday afternoon for 71-year-old Richard Harger Sr. who will be charged with grand theft.
Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan said every November, swan “docents” collect the swans, clean them or treat them if necessary, and return them to the park.
There is a volunteer group called the Swan Habitat Field Team dedicated to keeping an eye on the 52 swans that call Lake Eola home. They monitor everything from nesting conditions to health.
Other than the volunteer group, Sheehan said no one should ever touch a swan at Lake Eola.
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