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An evil deed takes flight

| Wednesday, March 29, 2006

His name is Joey, and by all accounts he is friendly. Perhaps too friendly.

Three days after he disappeared from Waterworks Mall near O'Hara, authorities continued searching for him Tuesday.

Those who know him best maintain a brave vigil, but optimism for Joey's safe return diminishes with each passing hour.

His absence is palpable; his empty cage at Petco is heartbreaking. Employees there still have a hard time believing the exotic, 3-inch-tall Hawaiian Sun Conure was birdnapped.

"We're all dumbfounded over this," Petco assistant manager Mike Hughes said.

There is a good reason to tell the robins, blue jays and cardinals that nest in our backyards to be extraordinarily careful around strangers. We know the potential dangers of such encounters.

In their fluttering, exuberant innocence, young birds often do not.

According to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police report, on Saturday afternoon the Petco staff noticed a customer in the store with his right hand peculiarly placed under his left arm.

Suspecting he was concealing something, workers confronted the man. He told them he was only scratching a persistent itch, and moments later walked out the door.

That's when he accidentally dropped Joey onto the sidewalk.

It took only a second for the craven criminal to scoop up the bird and take off running. A Petco worker who noticed a startled Joey on the ground gave chase, past Dingbats restaurant and onto Freeport Road, but the pursuit proved futile.

Pittsburgh had its first birdnapping in recent memory.

"I haven't researched it," city police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin said. "But in my almost four years on the job, I can honestly say I can't recall any other retail theft involving a tropical bird."

The police report indicates the lock on Joey's cage was broken. It is unclear whether the birdnapper lured Joey into his coat or simply snatched him when the Petco staff wasn't looking.

As Hughes tellingly revealed, however, "Joey is very outgoing. He's always willing to step onto someone's finger."

Hughes said the bird, a member of the parakeet family and valued at $600, also got along well with his neighbors in the adjoining cages. It is unclear, however, if Petco plans to bring in counselors to help the store's other animals cope with the trauma of the abduction.

An exhaustive search of the 903 Sun Conure items available on eBay turned up prints, calendars, sweatshirts, embroidered iron-on patches, hand-painted pins, charm watches, coffee mugs, key chains, nesting boxes, taming and training handbooks, cages, wall clocks and tote bags - but no actual Sun Conure.

The trail is cold, which isn't good for a bird requiring a warm habitat. Anyone with information on Joey's whereabouts is urged to call police at 412-665-3605.

An Avian Alert remains in effect.

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