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Vandals broke into nature center, 'traumatized' animals, authorities said

Authorities in Smithtown are hoping surveillance footage from a camera fished out of a pond helps lead them to suspected trespassers who harassed animals at the Sweetbriar Nature Center. Intruders have not only climbed into pens and damaged cages, allowing "traumatized animals" to roam the grounds unrestrained, they've also fed them fast food and, in at least one case, given beer to a goat, authorities said. (Credit: Sweetbriar Nature Center)

Who let the goats out … and, even, gave one a beer?

Authorities in Smithtown are hoping surveillance footage from a camera fished out of a pond helps lead them to suspected trespassers who harassed animals at the Sweetbriar Nature Center.  

Intruders have not only climbed into pens and damaged cages, allowing "traumatized animals" to roam the grounds unrestrained, they've also fed them fast food and, in at least one case, given beer to a goat, authorities said.

The Smithtown Department of Public Safety is asking the public to help them identify the suspects seen in surveillance footage from an incident on Feb. 21 — footage obtained from a damaged surveillance camera the suspects believed they had destroyed. That footage was recovered from a corroded storage card taken from a camera that had been ripped from its mount and tossed into a pond at the center.

The camera was discovered by accident during unrelated water testing in May, Sweetbriar program director Veronica Sayers said Wednesday. She said a volunteer who has IT expertise was then able to obtain the footage.

The video shows at least four suspects roaming the grounds of the 54-acre nature center, opening cages and damaging property, Smithtown Public Safety Deputy Chief Kevin McPadden said Wednesday. Sayers said one sequence shows one of the suspects climbing out of an enclosure home to pigs.

In one sequence one of the suspects says: "That's a trail cam."

Then he approaches the camera, telling another suspect: "I'm throwing it into the water, don't worry."

"One of the workers at Sweetbriar happens to recover this trail cam in the lake," McPadden said. "It's corroded, filled with mud, but this guy has skills — and he manages to recover footage from the card … Lo and behold, there are these pictures of these knuckleheads. Now, we're keeping our fingers crossed for sure that it's going to lead to further police action."

McPadden said the suspects face criminal mischief, petit larceny and animal cruelty charges when caught.

McPadden said the incidents captured on the recovered surveillance footage are just some of a series of incidents that have occurred in recent months at the nature center. Other incidents include trespassers operating quads and other off-road vehicles on the property, as well as the damaging of locks and cages, the illegal feeding of animals and the incident, discovered by investigators during a review of social media sites, of a goat being fed a bottle of beer.

"We don't know that it's from the same night," McPadden said of the goat incident. "We have no way of showing that it's the same night. But we do have reason to believe it's linked to the suspects shown in the surveillance."

Sweetbriar center provides garden, woodland, field and wetland habitats on the Nissequogue River and features education programs about — and, in some cases the rehabilitation or preservation of — the hundreds of species of plants and animals that make homes in the area. It runs educational programs for students and the rehabilitation of animals that cannot be released into the wild. Sayers said Sweetbriar has many farm animals, such as pigs, goats, chickens and rabbits, as well as an osprey, a hawk, great horned owls and even a resident mallard.

"We've know there were incidents going on because we'd come in in the morning and the goats would be out and locks would be broken," Sayers said. "We also knew people were coming in and using the trails, knocking stuff over, using quads and things like that … But we had no idea of some of the specifics until we saw that video … The goats? They were very, very friendly and they'd come to the fence, interact with people. The goats were very afraid of people after that incident. They were weird for about a week."

Officials ask anyone with information on the incidents to call public safety at 631-360-5773. All calls will remain confidential.

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