Hastings police ' />

Four alleged rustlers who crammed their getaway car "to the roof" with stolen sheep could face stiff penalties for animal abuse.

Hastings police caught two local men, aged 23 and 16, in the suburb of Flaxmere early yesterday with 14 sheep stuffed into their Mazda four-door saloon.

Another two men involved in the alleged rustling attempt are thought to have fled the scene and are being hunted by police.

The sheep, which Senior Sergeant Eden Sewell said were distressed, had been bound by the legs and placed on the back seat, the footwells, the boot and inside the spare-wheel well.

Animal Control removed them from the car, but two of them died as a result of the stifling conditions.

Mr Sewell described the treatment of the sheep as a "disgusting and an unnecessary act of cruelty".

The sheep were believed to have been stolen from local farms, and Mr Sewell is appealing for farmers to report missing stock.

He said officers had tried to stop the car in Flaxmere at 3am after they spotted it heaving with sheep.

After a short pursuit, the men left the car and ran through a local park, where two of them were apprehended.

They will appear in the Hastings District Court on Thursday.

SPCA national chief investigator Charles Cadwallader said he would encourage the police to charge the men under the Animal Welfare Act.

He said that going by police reports, the treatment of the animals was at the worst end of the scale.

"It's horrific and without a doubt in my mind someone's committed offences under the act.

"It sounds like [the abuse] was wilful and for financial gain, which means they could face some serious time."

Under an amendment bill which is before Parliament, the maximum penalty for wilful mistreatment of animals could be nearly doubled to five years in jail or a fine of $100,000.

SPCA national chief executive Robyn Kippenberger said it was the most recent in a series of bizarre cases of animal cruelty.

"Recently, a man shot 33 dogs on a property north of Auckland, another man fed kittens to his pitbull and someone trapped and painted hawks. It beggars belief."

The Federated Farmers provincial president for Hawkes Bay, Kevin Mitchell, said rustling and dog-worrying were not uncommon in the region, but 14 sheep being stolen in one raid was rare.

"They're likely to have come from one farm. We've had three droughts in four years and a dry autumn, so farmers need every last lamb and sheep to count. This hasn't helped."