Chilling news: Across the world, they fear the worst for little Toga

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The Independent Online

Churchgoers in New York had prayed publicly for a safe return and animal-lovers as far away as New Zealand had registered their concern. For their part, the residents of Newtown on the Isle of Wight were sick with worry. Then, shortly after 8am yesterday, there was, at last, some news of Toga, the three-month-old jackass penguin who was abducted five ago.

An anonymous caller to the missing penguin helpline - set up by the GMTV breakfast programme in response to the creature's disappearance - suggested that Toga had been dumped in a plastic bag at an undisclosed spot in Portsmouth's Naval Dockyard, 10 miles from the Isle of Wight zoo from which he was snatched on Saturday night by a thief who scaled two fences and broke through a hedge to enter the penguin enclosure. It was a lead, and the world's media seized upon it.

The caller rang off, leaving the zoo's owner, Derek Curtis, pleading for more information. "Can you please phone and tell us where it is," he said. "Time is critical. We are desperate."

Sky News, which had stationed a reporter on the island to follow this story as it developed, soon had the "breaking news" headline, "Penguin dumped in harbour". More speculatively, it was later suggested that "Penguin may be on boat". In the United States, the Houston Chronicle and Chicago Tribune posted the news on their websites by lunchtime.

The resources of the Royal Navy were swiftly deployed. But searches of the dockyard proved fruitless. "No one has seen a penguin walking around ... but we are keeping our eyes open," said a grim-faced navy spokesman. "We have been talking to the naval base and as far as we are concerned the penguin isn't here," confirmed the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Mr Curtis was no closer to an answer, despite speaking to the caller. "He said he worked at the docks and dumped it on the side of the dock," he said. "The phone has now gone dead and he's not answering it."

All of which means that the desperate search is destined to continue for a day or two yet. Increasingly, though, this Christmas animal story looks likely to have a sad ending. It would be difficult to hand-rear the penguin, who has been used to a diet of fish chewed up, swallowed and regurgitated by his mother. He can survive a day or two without his parents, at best.

Well-wishers from round the world have pledged well over £5,000 as reward money to anyone who can help recover the bird alive. Nowhere does the compassion for Toga seem to be more keenly felt than in Brooklyn, New York, where the Pentecostal Uprise Church has devoted prayer time to him. "We will be praying that the baby will be returned unharmed and in good health," read the congregation's prayer. "Trust in the Lord with all things of the heart, and lean not to thine own understanding. Trust." Donations of £400 followed from the US.

Many staff at the Amazon World zoo are simply too overwrought to contemplate why Toga, a vocal young creature whose donkey-like braying earns the species its name, should have become such a global celebrity. The intense interest had generated a number of false sightings before yesterday's call, leaving some staff "emotional and tearful", Karen Bright, the venue's manager, said.

Some staff believe that the popularity of March of the Penguins - a feature-length documentary about emperor penguins, narrated by Morgan Freeman and made by the naturalist Luc Jacquet - which led to a boom in penguin-watching tourist trips to Antarctica, may have prompted the global concern for Togo.

Hampshire Police were keeping on open mind last night on the GMTV call. "It is just one of a number of reported sightings," said a spokeswoman.

With no sign of his beloved penguin, Mr Curtis believes that all the empathy may, in the end, count for nothing. "I think we have lost it; it has been too long," he said. "Unfortunately, the police are not treating this like they would a missing human being. It should be treated the same, but at the end of the day it is a bird. They can't do everything because it is a bird."