It’s a modern version of a dark fable involving a hare, a turtle and a fox.

Maine Audubon is seeking three “invaluable” exhibit items that were stolen last weekend from its wildlife education collection: a snowshoe hare and a pond turtle, each preserved by a taxidermist and mounted in a Plexiglas box, and a red fox pelt.

The display pieces were taken from an Audubon instructor’s locked vehicle while it was parked in a Portland parking garage. They’re part of a state-licensed, 130-piece scientific collection of wildlife specimens that are considered difficult to replace and critical to education programs offered by Audubon and classroom teachers across Maine.

“These are things that are hard to come by,” said Eric Topper, Audubon’s education director. “They have been in our collection for decades and are part of Audubon’s legacy. They’re an important part of who we are and what we offer the community.”

Audubon’s scientific collection, which is on display at its headquarters in Falmouth, is made up of preserved mammals, birds and reptiles that were found dead in the wild or on a roadside, as well as pelts and other parts of animals, Topper said. While none of the stolen items is an endangered species, it could take months or years to replace them.

EXHIBITS USED AT EDUCATIONAL FAIR

The instructor, who lives in Portland, had the exhibit items in the back seat of her Ford pickup because they had been on display at the Home Energy Fair held Saturday at Falmouth Elementary School. Audubon’s booth offered information about solar energy and educational activities for children.

When the fair ended, the instructor headed home to Portland around 3:30 p.m. and parked in the Custom House Parking Garage at 25 Pearl St., in the heart of the Old Port. The exhibit items were covered by a blanket. She used the truck to go grocery shopping Sunday morning, when the items appeared to be undisturbed. The truck was back in the parking garage by 1 p.m.

The instructor noticed the three items were missing when she started to unload the truck Monday morning at Audubon headquarters in Falmouth. The driver’s side window didn’t work when she first got in the vehicle that day, but she had attributed the problem to cold weather.

Now, it appears that someone may have used a tool to break into the cab and take the items sometime between 1 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday. The culprit didn’t take a large sign, a raccoon pelt and other educational items that also were in the truck. The instructor reported the stolen items to Portland police.

“You think, ‘Who would want those things?’ But people collect those things all the time,” Topper said.

NUMBERS ON THE STOLEN ITEMS

Audubon has a scientific collector’s permit from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which is granted to schools and other institutions as a way to monitor collections that may include protected, regulated or endangered species. Not only is it illegal to possess stolen items, it’s also illegal to have a scientific collection without a permit, said Brenda Lord, licensing secretary at the state agency.

The stolen snowshoe hare has a springtime coat, showing how the fur changes from winter white to summer brown. It was one of a pair of preserved snowshoe hares in the collection – the other has a white coat. Its Plexiglas box is marked with a small No. 3 and a small, round Audubon logo.

The pond turtle is an older, faded specimen of an undetermined species. Its Plexiglas box is marked with a No. 32. The red fox pelt is marked with a No. 9 in green marker and its nose is loose.

Portland police did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

‘BIG HOLE IN OUR COLLECTION’

Dennis Theriault, a taxidermist who lives in Sanford, said it would be difficult to place a value on the stolen items. He recently ordered an 8-by-12-by-16-inch Plexiglas box that cost $225. He charges $120 to tan a fox hide, and $500 to mount snowshoe hares for hunters.

“They’re a lot of work,” Theriault said. “But that would be replacement value. Most people don’t want something they didn’t shoot. They’re not going to get much money for (the stolen items). They’ll be lucky to get $100 for the fox hide on eBay.”

Maine Audubon posted the “bad news” Tuesday on its Facebook page and asked for help in getting the items back. Comments on the post ranged from “Terrible!” to “People are just … CRUEL!!!”

The theft has left Audubon staff members upset and hoping for a happier ending to this tale.

“This is a big hole in our collection,” Topper said. “There are teachers who are counting on using that hare in their classrooms this spring.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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