An 18-inch baby penguin was stolen from the Amazon World zoo in southern England on Dec. 17. “Toga” was still missing as of Friday; the zoo’s manager is offering a $13,000 reward for his safe return. How hard is it to steal an animal from the zoo?
It depends on the animal. A full-grown lion would be very difficult to swipe even if the zoo had no security, but a lion cub would be relatively easy. In 2000, a Jakarta crime ring used inside help to steal 16 lion cubs; corrupt den wardens told the zoo manager that the cubs had been eaten by their mothers. Last month, four masked thieves with Kalashnikovs raided a zoo in the Gaza Strip and grabbed a lion cub after tossing a blanket over its head. (They also made off with two parrots known for speaking Arabic.)
In general, small or baby animals are the most vulnerable, since they’re easy to conceal and don’t put up much of a fight. An adult penguin, for example, can give you a vicious peck. Birds do make for tempting targets, though, since they’re not too big and can be worth a lot of money. (An exotic macaw could fetch more than $10,000.) Outdoor avian enclosures are also less likely to be rigged up with alarms or security cameras than indoor habitats. In 1989, the San Diego Zoo lost a milky eagle owl when thieves cut a 2-foot hole in its wire cage and an African eagle when thieves broke through the door at the back of its cage.
To protect its animals, a zoo may have security patrols, video cameras, and alarms. (Some zoos also provide beefed-up security for their most popular animals.) Security experts also suggest that keepers tag and photograph their animals or implant microchip identification. An implanted ID makes it harder to resell a stolen animal to a legitimate dealer or collector, who can scan the animal and suss out its identity.
Animal theft seems to be a bigger problem in Europe than in America. Last year, around 40 small monkeys were abducted in a series of well-planned break-ins at British zoos. Police think the animals were stolen to meet specific requests from private collectors. Crooks in France have also pilfered flamingoes by the dozen.
The last dramatic animal theft in the U.S. occurred on the day after Christmas in 2000, when teenagers climbed through a skylight and stole a pair of koalas from the San Francisco Zoo. One of the koala burglars planned to give the animals to his girlfriend as a present.
Motives vary from incident to incident. Police think some eagles stolen from American zoos may have been used for religious rituals. A stolen pronghorn named Janie appeared to have been beaten to death by sadists. And a red-tailed hawk named Mani was stolen on two separate occasions from a zoo in Illinois: The first thief tried to sell him; the second wanted to make him “free and happy in a non-caged world.”
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Explainer thanks Jane Ballentine of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.