THE owners of a 6ft South American bird on the loose in Scotland could face criminal charges, an expert has warned.
The massive rhea, a close relative of the ostrich, escaped after vaulting over a high stone wall when it got panicked two weeks ago.
It is now believed to be hiding somewhere near the village of Patna, Ayrshire, where residents have been warned not to approach it.
Animal experts said the non-native species could be “extremely aggressive” if cornered.
Owner Elaine Wilson and her husband Ian bought three of the birds six years ago to keep as pets and recently decided to sell them.
But one of the rheas made a run for it when a prospective buyer came to see it at the couple’s farm - sparking a major bird hunt in the usually quiet village on the banks of the River Doon.
Martin Robinson, a former prosecutor and senior investigations officer with the RSPB wildlife charity, said the couple were responsible for capturing the bird.
He said: “In this case, it’s not a wild bird. Legally, it’s a captive animal with an owner and the responsibility lies with the owners. They need to track it down and recapture it.
‘You can’t wash your hands of it because it’s going to cost you time and money. The person could find themselves charged with releasing a non-native species into the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.”
The Act makes it an offence to release or allow to “escape into the wild any animal... which is not normally resident and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain”.
If charged, owners must prove they took “all reasonable steps” to avoid releasing the animal.
Mr Robinson said it was not the first time a large bird had gone on the run and warned it might prove tricky to capture alive.
He said: “I would not recommend anybody approach it. They are only dangerous if you corner them, then they’re likely to kick out.”.
Mr Robinson compared it to a bull on the run, saying at some point the rhea will need to be cornered and taken home.
He added: “The alternative is that you shoot it. A lot of people are likely to get very uptight after that.”
Otherwise, he said the rhea will keep running around and ‘sooner or later it will run onto a road and get hit by a car’.
The rhea, which can run at up to 40mph, has been roaming free for almost two weeks, sparking sightings from bemused locals.
Mrs Wilson, 51, said last week: “These birds have a top speed of 40mph so there was no catching him. I have spent most of my spare time looking for him in the nearby fields. I am very worried about him - he will be disoriented, hungry and scared.
“They are timid birds and they would stay away from humans as much as possible, and would be much more scared of you than you are of them.”
She has declined to comment further, while Police Scotland said the missing bird was a matter for the Scottish SPCA.
Scottish SPCA animal rescue officer Alastair Hill, warned the public not to approach the bird as it could become “extremely aggressive” and instead call its animal helpline on 03000 999 999.