Fire Department officials spent all of Sunday night and Monday trying to discover who caused the explosion in the night deposit box at the animal shelter off Airport Road. While she would not give details of the investigation, Chapel Hill Fire Marshal Caprice Mellon did say the fire was not an accident.
"It was a deliberately set fire," she said.
The blaze started a little after 9 p.m. Sunday. Assistant General Manager Bart Willis, who was alone in the building at the time of the fire, said he heard the night deposit door open and an explosion.
"Right now we're estimating the cost of the damage at $10,000, but we can't be sure it's that high," Mellon said.
The explosion and fire destroyed the wildlife room. The shelter also lost important equipment including two refrigerators and an incubator, said Pat Sanford, director of the shelter.
"(The incubator) is very valuable to us to save small mammals, large mammals and birds," Sanford said.
The shelter takes in both domestic and wild animals in need. Among the four animals that died was a ferret going to an adoptive home and two squirrels that were about to be sent to the shelter's 48-acre wildlife sanctuary on Nicks Road.
"I can't imagine anybody who would want to burn harmless and defenseless animals when they're in their cages and can't defend themselves," Sanford said.
Mellon said she could only guess at a motive for the fire but said someone who had a pet taken by animal control might have held a grudge against the shelter. Sanford said the Chapel Hill animal control officer reports to the shelter, but there had been few threats against shelter employees.