So cute, thieves covet them, too

Published September 10, 2006

LONDON - Missing marmosets, abducted alligators, purloined penguins: Thieves are targeting Europe's zoos and safari parks to supply collectors who want ever more exotic species.

Conservationists say the practice is harming animals, threatening vital breeding programs and adding to an already flourishing illegal trade in exotic birds and animals.

"We live in a designer world and people are not satisfied any more with a budgie or a canary - they want something more exotic," said John Hayward, a former police officer who runs Britain's National Theft Register.

He says on average Britain's zoos have suffered a major theft every week for the past few years, involving dozens of animals worth thousands of dollars.

Conservationists fear the demand will further pressure wild populations.

Experts say the trade in exotic birds - both legal and illegal - has decimated African gray parrots, prized for their ability to mimic human speech.

Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says 360,000 African grays were legally traded between 1994 and 2003 - most of them into Europe - while many thousands more were illegally traded.

Zoo thefts made headlines last December when Toga the baby jackass penguin was stolen from Amazon World Zoo Park on the Isle of Wight off southern Britain. He was never found.

On June 18, thieves made off with five rare marmosets worth several hundred dollars each from Drusilla's Zoo at East Grinstead, south of London. Police later arrested two men and recovered four of the creatures, along with 14 other monkeys stolen from zoos in Devon and Cambridgeshire.

Hayward said primary targets are smaller monkeys - including South American marmosets, tamarins from South and Central America and spider monkeys from Mexico and Brazil - as well as large exotic birds like macaws and flamingos and reptiles such as turtles and tortoises.

The more exotic or endangered the animal, the higher the price. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says a single rare hyacinth macaw can fetch up to $45,000.

There are casual thefts, too: In the late 1990s, a man abducted an alligator from a zoo in central England.

"He took him to a party to impress his friends, then left him on the doorstep of a pet shop," Hayward said.

U.S. zoos also suffer thefts. In 2000, two golden eagles and a bald eagle were stolen from Santa Barbara Zoo in California, apparently for their feathers. Also that year, teens stole two koalas from San Francisco Zoo.

Kath Bright, manager of Amazon World Zoo Park, said penguin parents Kyala and Oscar mourned the loss of 3-month-old Toga for weeks.

There was a happy ending: On Feb. 14, Kyala and Oscar hatched another chick, dubbed Temba, "hope."