There are all types of thieves out there, but from pickpockets to bank robbers to white collar fraudsters to kidnappers, they all have one thing in common: a desire to steal rather than earn their money. Luckily for the victims, there are almost always protective measures against such crimes, like insurance and heavy security.
But a clever thief found a way to get an easy score – more than once – on a living thing of great value. And he would have gotten away with his crimes, if it weren’t for the sharp eye of one police officer.
The Madagascan radiated tortoise is considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful tortoises. They grow to be about 35 pounds with a high domed shell and other features that are typical of most tortoise species. The thing that sets the animal apart is its coloration.
The radiated tortoise gets its name from the brilliant yellow lines radiating from the center of each dark plate of its shell. The “star” pattern of the lines is more intricate and finely detailed than the similar patterns that appear on some species of tortoise. They are remarkably long-lived, even among tortoises, capable of living nearly 200 years.
For these reasons, the radiated tortoise is a prized animal to keep as a pet. Because they are so highly sought after, they have been over-exploited in the pet trade. On top of that, their natural habitat in their native Madagascar has been rapidly declining and the animals have been poached for food, leaving the species critically endangered.
While their numbers are growing so low that they may be on the path to extinction in the wild, there are approximately 330 animals in captivity that are participating in breeding programs, which show great promise in increasing their numbers. But because the illicit sale of radiated tortoises to private collectors can bring big money, there are still setbacks.
Fool Me Twice…
Two of those setbacks came in 2011 in Australia. A Madagascan radiated tortoise was stolen from the Perth Zoo in June of that year and then, in a double whammy, a second tortoise was stolen the following September. Because most of the security in a zoo is focused on keeping the animals in, a clever thief was able to strike twice.
Initially, the police investigation into the missing animals was met with no success. The kidnapper left next to no clues about their identity and were consequently able to evade the authorities for years. But that would all change thanks to a sharp-eyed police officer.
While police were responding to a call about a burglary in one of Perth’s northern suburbs in 2018, one of the responding officers spotted something strange in the backyard of a neighboring property. Closer inspection revealed that it was a radiated tortoise.
It’s Our Guy
When police took the animal to a vet, a scan of the animal uncovered a microchip which identified it as one of the Zoo’s missing tortoises. If the zoo was only able to recover that one animal, they would be happy enough. But a subsequent search of the house where the tortoise was found uncovered even more.
“It is believed the second tortoise was taken from the Girrawheen home on the same day police attended,” said a police statement about the incident. “There are concerns for the welfare of that tortoise.”
The concerns about the animal’s welfare came mostly from the fact that Madagascan radiated tortoises have different needs from most common tortoises. “To survive, these tortoises require special diets and living areas, completely different to the needs of a tortoise purchase at a pet store.”
The 29-year-old man whom the home belonged to was charged with possessing stolen or unlawfully obtained property and would later appear in court to answer for his crimes. In the meantime, the search was on for the second tortoise, who could be in significant danger after being moved.
It would take nearly three weeks but police were able to track the second animal down to the home of a 35-year-old woman who lived in a suburb of Greenwood. Almost miraculously, it was alive as well, though both animals had experienced some damage to their shells and were showing the effects of improper care.
According to Perth Zoo senior veterinarian Simone Vitali, the recovery of the two reptiles was “extraordinary.” Because they had been gone for so long, she and her staff had given up hope that they would ever be found. They had simply assumed that the animals, which are now about 22 years old, had died after going seven years without expert care.
Slow In All Things
Now that they’re back where they rightfully belong, it will be a long road to recovery for the radiated tortoises. “They don’t turn on a dime,” Vitali said. “They’re very slow to get sick and they’re very slow to recover from stress. We’ll be looking at them very closely and seeing how they transition back to our diet.”
As for the two culprits, the woman who was in possession of the second tortoise was also charged for her crime and, after further investigation, police found out that the man involved was also responsible for a third theft of a radiated tortoise from the same Perth Zoo.
In 2016, a 10-year-old tortoise was stolen but found its way back into possession of the zoo after just a few days. Apparently, the man had sold the animal to a third party who was unaware that it was stolen. When they realized that, they dropped off the tortoise at a local police station in a backpack.
The third theft occurred even though the zoo dramatically beefed up its security after the two thefts in 2011. The previously open air enclosure for the radiated tortoises was completely walled off and the Perth Zoo hired a security guard to patrol the premises.
That apparently wasn’t enough to deter the man, who would now be charged a third time. You would think that people who steal animals from the zoo would be a rarity but apparently they aren’t.
Not a Rarity
The return of the second tortoise to the Perth zoo came just days after another heist at the Perth Zoo. Someone had made off with a four-week-old baby meerkat. The animal popped up again a few days later.
Don’t Be a Dummy
Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said that Washington police are helping to take a look at the security of the enclosures across the zoo and emphasized that there are heavy penalties for stealing animals. “Don’t do stupid things, don’t spoil it for the rest of the community,” he said.