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The Daily Tar Heel

Animal Shelter Fire Declared Intentional

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.

Sanford said she is not considering any new security measures. The shelter has a security system and the police make random checks of the property. But even though the shelter is near the police station, there are not usually people in the other buildings on Municipal Drive after hours.

According to a press release, the Fire Department was able to put the fire out within 20 minutes and started clearing smoke out of the rest of the shelter almost immediately after. But Sanford said some cats in the building suffered from smoke inhalation, and while they were not in mortal danger, they could still get sick. "They're much more likely to succumb to upper respiratory infection in the next few days," Sanford said.

Sanford said that while she was upset by the crime, she was grateful for the positive community reaction.

"This is a community shelter and people take a lot of pride," she said.

Mellon said the investigation would be open until they found a suspect, but hoped for information through Crime Stoppers. Sanford said she had faith in the investigators. "I'm confident that (whoever set the fire) is going to be caught."

The City Editor can be reached


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