UPDATED: Police in the northwest coastal city of Ålesund decided to drop animal cruelty charges against four partying teenagers known as “russ,” but they’re not off the hook yet. Their late-night antics last week left them accused of stealing three baby penguins and an unhatched egg from an outdoor aquarium, and now they face charges of endangering the penguins’ lives and lesser charges of trespassing on aquarium property.
The four graduating high students, two men and two women, were initially charged by police with putting animals into a helpless situation, after aquarium officials discovered that the three penguin chicks were missing. Surveillance video showed as many as seven russ intruding into the penguin enclosure late Wednesday night, and even lifting the lids off nesting boxes. A major search and rescue effort was launched and a representative for the local russ issued an apology over the incident, which has received heavy media coverage nationally.
On Monday, however, two of the baby penguins were found dead in their nesting boxes, apparently trampled by grown penguins. That meant the penguin chicks hadn’t been stolen, but officials at Atlanterhavsparken in Ålesund suspect the older penguins were agitated and stressed by the disturbance in their compound. Officials at the animal rights organization NOAH share those concerns and reported the russ to police after the police altered their own charges.
“It’s important that people are aware that if animals are stressed or subjected to trauma, it can have quite tragic consequences,” said Siri Martinsen, a veterinarian and leader of NOAH. “Unfortunately, this awareness was clearly lacking among those charged in this case.” NOAH’s press release on Tuesday cited the Norwegian animal welfare law that calls for animals “to be protected against the danger of unnecessary stress or strain.”
Lawyers for two of the students charged have suggested the park was at fault for not having better security, and that park officials were too quick to judge the students. While the russ appear vindicated in their claims that they did not kidnap the baby penguins, they’re not getting any apology from aquarium officials.
They also remain in trouble with police for unlawfully entering the locked aquarium after hours. “As it looks now, we are facing another type of punishable incident, that is trespassing,” Police Inspector Yngve Skovly told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. It wasn’t immediately clear how the police would respond to NOAH’s complaint later Tuesday afternoon.
The teenagers now face, at the very least, fines or jail terms of up to three months on the trespassing charges. Axel Lange, an attorney for one of them, claimed the public attention and media coverage of the case was “far in excess of what was necessary in regards to what the russ did.” Neither police nor Lange would speculate whether the russ nonetheless contributed to the deaths of the penguin chicks, part of the threatened Humboldt species, by disturbing them late last Wednesday night.
Police were also dropping their search for the third baby penguin still missing. An unhatched egg remained missing as well.