WATCH: Big Island family helps reunite kidnapped baby nēnē with its parents
As the kids of Lilinoe Kahalepauole-Bustamonte enjoyed bentos for lunch outside at Wailoa State Recreation Area in Hilo on the Big Island, they noticed a baby nēnē, an endangered Hawaiian goose.
“It was really cute,” said Kahalepauole-Bustamonte, who was in the family car with her husband as they watched the kids.
They’d never seen a baby nēnē before but could tell from the bird’s fluffier appearance that it was different from the ducks and other geese that were also wandering around the park.
It was a quick, fun family outing. Then a car pulled up about three parking stalls away from their vehicle and everything changed. Kahalepauole-Bustamonte was about to witness an abduction. Not of her children, but of the gosling.
The Big Island resident and her husband saw a woman, later identified as 57-year-old Meiqin Chen of Hilo, distract the baby nēnē’s parents with food. Less than five minutes later, she allegedly scooped up the baby bird at the park’s small boat harbor, throwing it in an onion bag and driving off.
But she would not get far. She was tracked down and caught with the gosling in Keaʻau, about 10 miles away. She was cited for three violations.
Kahalepauole-Bustamonte explained how they helped law enforcement track down the nēnē kidnapper.
“My husband, right off the bat, said, ‘Babe, I think they’re going to take the baby nēnē,’. I said, “No, babe.” I have high hopes and I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ He said, ‘No, I really do think they’re going to take the nēnē.’”
When the woman pulled out of the parking lot, Kahalepauole-Bustamonte and her husband went to look and see if the baby nēnē was still there. It wasnʻt.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, babe, she did take the nēnē,ʻ ” Kahalepauole-Bustamonte said. “He said, ‘Babe, what do we do? We gotta go. I feel like we have to go and save the nēnē. We can’t just let them take it.’”
Kahalepauole-Bustamonte called law enforcement. On the other end of the phone was Raymond McGuire with the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
“It was really heartbreaking because I felt like they were going to take the baby nēnē to eat,” she said.
Kahalepauole-Bustamonte and her husband followed Chen’s car and were in contact with the Land Department’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement and Hawai‘i Police Department, which were called to assist. Chen was stopped and the gosling was found, wrapped up in the onion bag.
“My husband was so concerned that the baby nēnē couldn’t breathe in that bag,” Kahalepauole-Bustamonte said.
Their three teenage sons stayed behind in the park and helped a biologist with the Land Department’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife capture the gosling’s parents.
Chen is scheduled to appear May 19 in Hilo District Court. The gosling and its parents are now in an isolation pen at the Hawai‘i Island Nēnē Sanctuary, where they are being monitored to make sure the ordeal did not interrupt the nēnē family’s bond.
“The Kahalepauloe family really stepped up to make things right,” McGuire said. “They saw something happening that didn’t seem right and called the right people to help save this nēnē family.”
The state stresses that nēnē need to be kept wild to thrive. McGuire said by feeding nēnē at the Wailoa park or anyplace else, the birds become use to people. Once habituated, the nēnē cannot tell the difference between a person who wants to help or one who wants to cause harm: “So it made it very easy for the nēnē gosling to be taken,” McGuire said.
“Even my toddler knows not to feed the nēnē or not to get close to them,” Kahalepauole-Bustamonte said. “It was heart-wrenching to see that it was adults that did something like this. If you’re a local here, you know not to touch the nēnē. You shouldn’t be there, or you shouldn’t be even attempting to do something like what these individuals did. You’re stealing a live animal.”
Anyone who witnesses wildlife harassment is encouraged to call the 24-hour Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement hotline at 808-643-DLNR (3567) or via the state Land Department’s DLNRTip app, which is available for free via the Google Play Store, iTunes App Store or by clicking here.
Incidents involving protected species, including nēnē, can also be reported by calling the Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 808-974-4221.