4 Shocking Aspects Of Zoo Animal Robberies Nobody Talks About
Zoo robbery sounds like something Captain Planet would half-ass a fight against in an episode that's 90 percent Planeteer whining. But it's actually one of the fastest growing crime problems in the world. It's getting to the point that you can't step into the average nature reserve without a guy in a ski mask running past, screaming and clutching an enraged pelican. And not every theft is as charming as the time a stolen lemur wriggled away from his thief, escaped to a local playground, and was discovered by a lemur-loving five-year-old. This is a serious problem. Consider, for example ...
The Great Philadelphia Insect Heist
The issue of zoo theft burst into the public imagination in 2018, when the people of Philadelphia awoke to the news that a criminal mastermind stalked their streets with a stolen army of 7,000 terrifying murder insects. This was a startling development even for Philly, where the average news story starts with "Drunk Challenges Mayor To Fistfight" and ends with "...repeatedly in the groin, as residents and the Phillie Phanatic screamed in a manner onlookers could only describe as 'inchoate'."
The stolen insects included giant centipedes, fire-legged tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, desert hairy scorpions, and something called a red spot assassin bug, which we're literally too scared to Google. Every one of those animals personally hates you and God, and we didn't even get into the six-eyed sand spider, which has been described as "one of the most venomous spiders in the world," behind only the Brazilian Wandering Spider and Ann Coulter.
All 7,000 creepy-crawlies were seized in a daring heist at the Philadelphia Insectarium, which was basically cleaned out. Police quickly identified the crime as an inside job, largely because they found the main suspect's uniform nailed to the wall with two huge knives. Subsequent investigations revealed that the theft originated when the spider-wrangler in question learned that he was about to be fired. Instead, he recruited a strike team of fellow disgruntled employees and "staged a coup," seizing control of the Insectarium and carrying off multiple carloads of endangered species. Sadly, this did not end with the Insectarium's owner teaming up with the six-eyed sand spider to stage a Die Hard-style fightback against the thieves.
The mastermind was ultimately arrested, having made one tiny mistake (neglecting to turn off literally any security cameras before scooping tarantulas into a sack like a soon-to-be-arrested mall Santa). But only 5 percent of the stolen insects were ever recovered. Investigators concluded that the rest were already circulating on the thriving endangered insect black market, where they had an estimated value of $40,000. Which is frankly an insanely low amount of money to steal and house thousands of cockroaches for. Like, they could probably have got more if they'd just stolen the Insectarium director's car. Either way, the thefts were devastating for the popular Insectarium, which risked losing its ranking as one of the world's most horrifying nightmare zoos.
The Insectarium heist gained considerable press coverage, because people really like to have a handle on where the nearest giant scorpion is at all times. Doubtless many people were shocked such a thing could happen. But in reality, the Insectarium was just one incident in a crime spree that's getting worse all the time.
Zoo Heists Are A Weirdly Huge Problem
Back in 2015, thieves cut their way into Germany's Krefeld zoo and made off with three golden lion tamarins, an extremely endangered South American monkey. Just months earlier, the same group of "experts" are believed to have "evaded security cameras and night patrols" at France's Beauval zoo while scooping up 7 more golden tamarins. Five more tamarins went from a Dutch zoo after thieves kicked their way into the primate enclosure in 2014, the same year three tamarins were taken from England's Blackpool zoo. Seriously, we're pretty close to the point where tamarins have to be kept in a vault behind a grid of lasers. And bear in mind, this isn't the world's major zoo crime spree, we're just describing the thefts affecting one particular species of monkey.
The current zoo theft epidemic is actually so massive that just listing all the incidents would require an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, except that they'd all be stolen before they even got halfway through Macbeth. In England, some guy sprinted out of a zoo with penguins under each arm, then sold them on Facebook for 10k. In Australia, police arrested a man after he called to report that his stolen Perth Zoo tortoise had been stolen by a second tortoise thief. In the US, the Santa Ana Zoo's lemur exhibit was robbed by a guy who later had to be chased down by speedboat after trying to escape cops by jumping in the harbor and swimming to freedom, a plan that generally works better if you've stolen a cooperative orca.
Between 2011 and 2017, European zoos reported over 400 animal thefts, many of them linked to organized crime. A big part of the problem is that zoos aren't exactly maximum security facilities -- jaguars are many things, but expert lockpicks isn't one of them -- and even places that have been targeted before struggle to keep professional thieves out. For example, remember that Krefeld zoo that lost three tamarins in 2015? Well, the exact same group of thieves slipped back in a couple of months later and made off with two endangered macaws, worth tens of thousands on the black market.
Zoos are so helpless that sometimes the only defense is the animals themselves. In 2018, tamarin thieves used bolt cutters to enter an enclosure in New Zealand's Wellington Zoo, only to find themselves under attack by an enraged tamarin army. After what we assume was a Home Alone-style struggle to defend their home, the tamarins succeeded in driving off the intruders, who retreated empty-handed, probably to Google just how many diseases you can get from several dozen monkey bites. Not to be rude or anything, but if you're getting savagely mauled by a squirrel-sized animal, maybe it's time to reconsider your life of crime. It's the equivalent of getting your ass kicked by guinea pigs.
Law Enforcement Are Virtually Helpless To Stop It
They pretty much know who took the tamarins from the Krefeld Zoo, as well as exactly what happened to them -- just weeks after the theft, a private seller in Slovakia began advertising a breeding pair of the extremely endangered monkeys on Facebook. But authorities declared that they were helpless to do anything, and simply closed the case after concluding the animals were no longer in Germany. The local zoo director ultimately became so frustrated that he suggested that zoos take matters into their own hands and form an elite team of private eyes to hunt down stolen animals. Sadly, the idea had to be abandoned, since anyone allowed to put "crime-fighting international leopard detective" on their LinkedIn dies of sexual exhaustion in under a week.
Modern zoos favor keeping animals in open-air enclosures, which is significantly more humane, but also makes it easier for thieves to jump in and grab a tortoise. And the Internet has helped create a massive exotic pet black market, where smugglers can easily connect with wealthy buyers around the world. But the real problem is a simple lack of law enforcement. Most countries don't have a dedicated wildlife smuggling taskforce, so rare animal thefts are usually left to the local police department, who don't have the connections or resources to investigate a trans-national crime. In other words, once an animal leaves the country, it's pretty much gone.
Many countries don't even have the laws needed to prosecute animal thieves. Eastern Europe in particular has emerged as a major animal smuggling hub, based on a near-complete lack of legal restrictions in some countries. The Czech Republic, for example, is known for the trade in big cats, which are astonishingly unregulated there. As one frustrated zoo director pointed out, it's illegal to walk a dog without a leash in Prague, but walking around with an untethered lion is apparently completely fine. Seriously, if Joe Exotic was Czech they'd have made him their actual king by now.
Even when countries do investigate, securing a conviction can be incredibly difficult. Undercover agents of the US Fish & Wildlife Service once uncovered a major gorilla smuggling plot, but realized it would be almost impossible to get a conviction unless they could actually catch somebody in the act. In the end, they literally had to disguise an agent as a gorilla and sell him to the smugglers (they helpfully smeared his store-bought gorilla costume in real ape shit in an effort to ensure the smugglers didn't look too closely into the cage). This actually worked, with one minor hiccup: After the smugglers had been arrested, the undercover agent unlocked the door of his cage and walked out. Unfortunately, the smugglers still thought he was a real gorilla and began screaming in terror and trying to sprint away in handcuffs.
Things Are Only Going To Get Worse
The rise of online black markets has caused a massive boom in non-traditional forms of theft. Botanical gardens, for instance, are under siege from plant thieves, like the ones who stole an incredibly rare water lily in a "well-planned raid" on London's Kew Gardens in 2014. A single orchid bulb can fetch hundreds of dollars online, and is almost impossible for law enforcement to track. Things are so bad that some of the world's most idyllic gardens are scrambling to install security cameras and have to keep certain plants locked away under tight security, which is usually something that only happens in Gotham when Poison Ivy's attacking.
As with the zoo thefts, plant heists are rarely prosecuted, to the point that thieves hardly bother with secrecy. When one botanist discovered the incredibly rare St Helena ebony being auctioned on eBay, he was reduced to sending the seller a pleading message pointing out that only two examples of the species remained in the wild. The guy replied "Screw you, this is capitalism." And botanical gardens are just one example. Natural history museums are plagued by thieves looking for exotic animal skins and ivory, while an autistic flute player once made $125,000 by stealing rare bird feathers from an ornithology museum and selling them to a shadowy underground community of fishermen to tie fishing flies.
There's currently a massive boom in bee theft, with thousands of hives stolen by organized crime rings each year in California alone. Agricultural theft is rampant, like the time thieves somehow harvested and escaped with 6.5 tons of vintage grapes during a raid on a French vineyard. Meanwhile, a particularly ambitious group of thieves hit upon a completely unprotected target and are currently stealing sunken World War II battleships from the bottom of the ocean and selling them for scrap metal. But zoos are arguably the most serious non-traditional theft target, since they risk pushing endangered species over the edge. There are less than 4,000 golden lion tamarins left in the entire world, and zoos are at the forefront of a breeding program designed to restore the population and save the species. Every tamarin theft lowers the genetic diversity of the breeding pool, potentially risking a genetic bottleneck that could doom the entire species.
As it stands, things are getting worse. In 2017, ivory thieves broke into the Paris Zoo at night, shot a rhino named Vince in the head and cut off its horn with a chainsaw. A year later, authorities in Prague discovered a horrendous "tiger slaughterhouse," where big cats were butchered, boiled down and exported for use in traditional Chinese medicine. In the US, a mother kangaroo was severely injured when zoo thieves literally tore her baby from her pouch. Where's an army of enraged New Zealand tamarins when you need them?
Top image: Bart van Dorp/Wikimedia Commons, Internets Dairy/Wikimedia Commons