FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A Virginia resident on his first trip to the Grand Canyon started recording when he saw a squirrel approach two men, thinking they would be bitten.
Jon Hildebrand said he was stunned when one of the French-speaking men kicked the squirrel over the edge and into the air. He later posted his video on YouTube, and it went viral.
Authorities at the Grand Canyon are investigating the incident and the authenticity of the video that Hildebrand said he shot early last week at one of the overlooks at the east rim. Authorities say the chances of finding the man who kicked the squirrel are slim.
"I was in such utter shock," Hildebrand told The Associated Press. "I thought, 'Do people do this at the Grand Canyon?' "
Hildebrand, a brother and a friend left the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for a road trip across the West, visiting places like Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon and Phoenix. He said he stepped away from his group at the Grand Canyon to take a picture at the edge. That's when he saw two shirtless men wearing shorts and cowboy hats feeding the squirrel.
The video he shot shows the squirrel follow a trail of food one of the men laid out before he puts on a shoe and kicks the animal. Hildebrand, 24, said the two men started laughing, grabbed their clothes and ran off. No one else was around at the time, he said.
"I was so dumbfounded in the moment, that I didn't know what to do," he said.
Grand Canyon Chief Ranger Bill Wright said authorities hadn't spoken to Hildebrand as of Wednesday morning. His original post no longer appears on YouTube, which has policies that prohibit videos depicting animal abuse. A YouTube spokeswoman said the company doesn't comment on specific content.
Park officials have been receiving emails and phone calls from people appalled by the man's behaviour. The group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, offered a $15,000 reward Wednesday for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
Hildebrand said he's hopeful the men can be identified.
Wright said intentionally kicking a squirrel would violate federal laws that prohibit disturbing or harassing wildlife. The maximum penalty would be six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. The video capturing the incident and the public outrage has put more pressure on Grand Canyon authorities to investigate, he said.
"If it wasn't for that, I don't know how much more time we'd spend on it," Wright said. "People are very concerned."