Zoo animals fall prey to organised crime

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The Independent Online

Jewellery, art and antiques used to be their favourite loot. But now professional thieves have a new, much softer, but increasingly lucrative target in their sights - live animals.

Jewellery, art and antiques used to be their favourite loot. But now professional thieves have a new, much softer, but increasingly lucrative target in their sights - live animals.

A spate of thefts of monkeys from zoos has highlighted the increasing criminal trade in rare and exotic creatures. Almost 40 monkeys have been taken from British zoos and animal centres this year, in what police believe are a series of professional thefts carried out "to order" for collectors or breeders.

In the latest theft, from Shaldon Wildlife Trust in Devon at the weekend, a silvery marmoset, a squirrel monkey, five Goeldi's monkeys and two cotton-top tamarinds were stolen. It was the third time the centre has been raided in recent months and the second time that Joe - a baby squirrel-monkey stolen in March and later recovered - has been taken.

The theft of the monkeys, which are worth more than £1,000 each, follows several similar break-ins at small zoos and animal trusts across the country. In May, five marmosets were stolen from a house in Darlington. In June, four monkeys were taken from a zoo in the Midlands, and Oban Zoo in Scotland was also targeted with 15 monkeys, all rare breeds, being taken. Six weeks ago, thieves stole five squirrel monkeys from Shaldon.

Following the latest raid, Tracey Moore, director of the trust, said: "It was just a complete shock. They had by-passed all the security - it was someone who knew exactly what they were doing. The thieves had obviously been around the zoo previously because they knew where things were and what they wanted. They came well equipped with all the tools they needed, including the carrying cages for the monkeys."

John Hayward, who runs the National Theft Register for exotic animals in Oxfordshire, says the current wave of incidents is the most serious he has seen in 10 years of monitoring live-animal theft. Mr Hayward, a former detective inspector and head of intelligence at Thames Valley police, set up the register 10 years ago at the bequest of zoo owners who felt they were vulnerable to thieves.

"It's the welfare not the value of the animals that matters as far as we are concerned," he said. "I don't feel these animals have been stolen to feed into a domestic pet trade because they are not hand-tame animals. They are bred in captivity but they are wild animals. We feel there is no doubt that they have gone into some private collection or for breeding.

Police immediately alerted port authorities and customs following the weekend thefts, but Mr Hayward suggested the thieves may already be abroad. "I would strongly suggest that these animals have been stolen to order and possibly immediately shipped out of the country," he said.

Part of the trade is driven by some private collectors wanting "pets" that are more and more exotic. "A lot of animals, because they are relatively rare, appear to be more attractive to people. They aren't just happy to look at a bowl of goldfish anymore. People who steal animals professionally are the nearest thing to people who steal fine art and antiques - it's an international scene."

THE THIEVES' FAVOURITES

KOI CARP

These oversized relations of goldfish can, depending on size and colour, sell for £2,000 or more, meaning a full pond can represent rich pickings to the fish thief. Last May, thieves took 17 two-feet long koi, worth around £40,000, from a pond in Tayside.

TORTOISES

A common tortoise carries a price tag of about £200. Most are protected in the wild, meaning supply is limited, and while 15,000 have been brought into the UK legally from outside Europe since 1996, more than 6,600 illegals were seized in seven years up to 2001.

MONKEYS

Smaller species such as marmosets and squirrel monkeys, which are a little over a foot tall and worth about £1,000 each, are the most commonly stolen. In the recent spate of thefts, small zoos and animal trusts which do not have the elaborate security systems of larger establishments have been targeted.

EXOTIC BIRDS

These account for 90 per cent of the register of stolen animals - including macaws, parrots, cockatoos and finches - and range in value from African grey parrots, selling for upwards of £500, to scarlet or green-winged macaws, which cost £10,000.

PEDIGREE DOGS

Usually stolen for breeding - and occasionally held to ransom - even common canines such as labradors can fetch more than £500. John Hayward advises dog owners not to leave their dogs in cars and to keep them in sight while walking.