LARGO — For more than a decade, visitors to the George C. McGough Nature Park have flocked to the great horned owl.
JR is "usually the first thing people go see," said Greg Brown, the city's parks superintendent. "He's just a fixture at the site."
But on Saturday the popular owl was gone and officials feared the worst.
The multicolored bird with large yellow eyes fell from his nest as a chick and never learned to hunt or live on his own.
"He needs humans to survive, unfortunately," Brown said.
Officials were alerted to JR's disappearance shortly after 9 a.m. when two visitors noticed a hole in the owl's 12- by 10-foot enclosure.
"Somebody just cut their way through the metal fence," Brown said. "It's just sad to think what they had to do to get him out of there."
Relief came four hours later, when the owl was spotted in an oak tree in the nature park. But it was short-lived.
Officials were unable to lure JR back with food in a cage they put about 25 feet up in the oak tree. Instead, the shy bird flew to another tree — and shortly thereafter, flew away altogether.
"We lost track of him. He flew off. He's gone," said Joel Quattlebaum, the park's nature center specialist.
Now the hope — a slim one, admitted Quattlebaum — is that JR will get hungry and return to the cage, which park officials planned to leave up in the tree overnight.
JR's biggest challenges will be attacks from competitors like hawks and eagles, and possible starvation, Quattlebaum said.
"More than anything else, it's just sad for everyone," he said.
Officials believe the break-in to JR's enclosure occurred sometime between when the park closed at sunset Friday and when a volunteer reopened the facility at sunrise Saturday.
"Obviously they either tried to steal him and couldn't get him or they just thought he needed to be free," Brown said.
Staff writer Luis Perez contributed to this story. Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.