Brazen thieves have stolen 36 exotic animals from a wildlife sanctuary in Florida after a fake advert encouraged people to help themselves to the creatures.

Seven ring-tailed lemurs, five marmosets, four monkeys, seven birds and 13 tortoises were taken from the We Care Wildlife Sanctuary in Miami on Sunday morning (4 March). The thieves unscrewed bolts to remove the fences and grab the animals, broadcaster WVSN reported.

The heist took place after a fake advert shared on Craigslist urged people to take "Free exotic animals."

"We're a sanctuary going out of business. Go around back and help yourself," it read.

Workers at the sanctuary said they felt "violated" after the theft of the valuable animals. "They took the dollar animals. They knew exactly what they wanted," volunteer Cindy Robert told broadcaster WSVN, adding that the stolen animals were worth "thousands of dollars."

"They left the raccoons, they left the horses, they left the goats, and there were some birds nesting in the tree that they didn't see because it was pitch black. We did get to keep those, at least," she said.

Robert said the owners of the sanctuary, Armando Mendez and Josue Santiago, are so upset that they are unable to talk about the incident.

"One can't stop crying, he's so attached to these animals. It's a huge labour of love to these animals to protect them," she said.

The volunteer expressed concern about the wellbeing of the stolen animals, saying that "stress alone could give some of them heart attacks."

"Please, just bring them back," she appealed, "They need to be safe and cared for properly."

Robert refuted the claim in the Craigslist advert that the sanctuary was closing down, commenting that the owners were actually expanding and had recently moved many animals to larger premises.

She said that the thieves probably had "insider knowledge" and knew that the new premises did not yet have security cameras installed.

The Miami-Dade police department is investigating the theft and has offered a reward of $1,000 (£722) to anyone who can help return the animals to the sanctuary.

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