Two South Jersey boys charged with shooting exotic animals with pellet airsoft guns at a zoo in Cumberland County were released to their parents Monday after being held overnight at a juvenile detention center, authorities said.
A 17-year-old from Vineland and a 14-year-old from Bridgeton were arrested Sunday afternoon at the tiny Cohanzick Zoo in Bridgeton after witnesses saw and heard them shoot at a rare white tiger and a black bear, zoo officials said.
The boys, whose names were not released, were charged on multiple weapons counts even though they were only airsoft guns, said Kenneth Pagliughi, first assistant prosecutor for Cumberland County.
In addition, the SPCA signed charges against both boys for tormenting an animal, Pagliughi said.
The two boys allegedly scaled a fence and targeted a white Bengal tiger and a black Asiatic bear with Airsoft hard pellet guns, said Bev Greco, director of the Cumberland County SPCA.
Neither of the animals was seriously injured.
Witnesses called police who apprehended the youths on a road leading out of the zoo, said Greco.
As police approached, one of the boys dropped his Airsoft gun. Police seized another replica airsoft weapon from the younger boy, Greco said.
Both looked like realistic guns, Greco said.
"This could have ended in a very very bad way," Greco said. Several months ago in San Francisco, "two teens were mauled and another killed after tormenting a tiger. In addition, these Airsoft guns have been mistaken for the real thing by police."
"In both ways, these kids put their lives in serious danger," Greco said.
Kelly Shaw, the zoo's animal curator, found two hard plastic pellets in the tiger exhibit and three in the bear's compound.
"Thankfully, the animals had no evidence of trauma," Shaw said. "They both appeared well when I examined them."
Ganesha, the 11-year-old white tiger, has been with the zoo since he was four-months-old. Holly, the 12-year-old black bear, has spent her entire life in Bridgeton, Shaw said. Holly's brother, Ben, lives at the Philadelphia Zoo.
The Cohanzick Zoo is one of the last free zoos in the nation and is nestled on 10 acres in Bridgeton City Park.