A fraternity scavenger hunt at the University of Southern Mississippi was supposed to be a routine off-campus prank rushing pledges in the middle of the night: Go to the local zoo and get your picture taken next to a swan.
However, the fraternity stunt at 1 a.m. Tuesday went awry when one student decided he wanted a Chilean pink flamingo instead — to take back to the fraternity house, according to police and officials.
The student climbed a 10-foot fence and threw a T-shirt over the bird, zoo officials said.
What started as an innocent stunt has now resulted in the flamingo’s death, a student charged with a felony, nine other suspects being investigated for conspiracy, and the indefinite suspension of the school’s 65-year-old Delta Mu chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, officials said.
A second flamingo later died from injuries caused by the pranksters’ “attack,” zoo officials said. The second flamingo was a male and the mate of the first flamingo, and the male “sustained his injuries by defending his mate,” the zoo said on its Facebook page.
Devin Nottis, 19, was arrested and charged with grand larceny, Hattiesburg Police said.
He and his attorney couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on Friday.
The case against the nine other suspects will be sent to the Forrest County District Attorney’s Office for a “grand jury to pursue an indictment,” police said.
The accusation led to a felony charge because a Chilean flamingo is worth $2,000, above the felony threshold of $500, said Richard Taylor, the executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, which operates the Hattiesburg Zoo.
The fraternity members realized “that this was a really, really bad decision” when they saw the flamingo in their house and “instructed that the bird be taken away,” Taylor said.
But the student accused of stealing the bird decided to leave the bird on a nearby bicycling trail, Taylor said.
During that transport, one of the flamingo’s legs was broken, and when the bird was found the next morning, it was unable to move and had to be euthanized, Taylor said.
‘Terrible and heinous’
Nottis has been placed on interim suspension from the university. None of the others being investigated had been suspended as of Friday, said Southern Mississippi Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Joe Paul.
“The university is taking swift and appropriate action in response to this incident,” Paul said. “This is a terrible and heinous act that has occurred, and inconsistent with the values of our institution.”
The Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity said it was “disgusted and outraged” by the incident.
“The alleged actions by these students are inexcusable and indefensible. It is without hesitation that the chapter has been suspended. The individuals involved will also be brought up for expulsion” from the fraternity, said the fraternity’s executive vice president, Justin A. Buck.
Police said they received a call at 2 a.m. Tuesday about several people possibly inside the zoo. The caller also said several young men were throwing eggs at a truck, police said. The caller said the males “had a duck or a goose with them,” the police report said.
Responding officers, however, didn’t find anyone.
Zoo video breaks case
By 8:30 a.m., officers responded to a call about “a pink flamingo on the side of the road,” the police report said.
Video footage from the zoo showed “four subjects” walking through the zoo about 1:15 a.m., police said.
The zoo posted the video clip to its Facebook page and asked for the public’s help in identifying the four people, Taylor said.
A tipster told the zoo that “there was a couple of Twitter feeds that seemed to point towards some knowledge of this, if not participation,” Taylor said.
The information was turned over to police.
Death of the male mate
In the aftermath of the prank, zoo officials discovered a male flamingo was showing unusual behavior. He stood by himself, not with the flock. He also had abrasions, Taylor said.
The male then died.
“We took it in for a necropsy, which revealed it had severe internal damage consistent with blunt force trauma,” Taylor said.
Some of the male’s internal organs ruptured, Taylor said.
“It was trying to protect the mate and it was probably kicked or hit away in some fashion,” Taylor said.
As police continue their investigation, the zoo is evaluating whether to hire a night security officer, Taylor said.