Career Counselor: So, have you ever had a full-time job before?
Client: Yeah, I worked at the zoo for a while.
Career Counselor: Great! And what did you take away from that?
Client: Defiantly not a penguin.
Staff and students at Gainsville's Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo were devastated late last month by the theft of several animals from their facility. Thanks to the outstanding work of the local police, suspects were arrested and most of the animals - including a squirrel monkey and a prehensile-tailed skink - were recovered days later. Two box turtles and two gopher tortoises - both Florida natives - remain unaccounted for.
Zoo professionals spend a lot of time worrying about their charges escaping and coming to harm (or, depending on the species, harming someone else). Try as we might, we can't explain to our animals that they are better off in their enclosures then, say, running loose on the interstate outside our gates, or in the woods outside the park while winter inches closer every day. To that end, we just do our best to make sure enclosures are secure and animals are checked regularly.
What is a lot harder to prepare for, and a lot harder to protect from, is theft by humans.
There are three main reasons why someone might steal a zoo animal - mischief, malice, and money. Some might see it as a funny prank. Others are just sadistic and want the animal so they can harm it, eat it, copulate with it, whatever. In most cases, however, it's the money angle. Many species that are found in zoos and aquariums are endangered, and endangered means rare, and rare means expensive. In some cases, I was shocked at how expensive they could be. A few years back, I decided that I wanted to celebrate my new home by getting a pet snake. I already new exactly what I wanted - a black-headed python, a species which I had worked with at two zoos previously and had seen in several others. And so, convinced that they couldn't be that pricey if so many zoos had them, I went shopping for one.
$1500. That's what I was looking at for a single snake, never mind that I wanted a pair. I quietly re-evaluated my pet plans. At about that time, I read You Belong In A Zoo! by Peter Brazaitis, which includes an entire chapter devoted to a series of mysteries thefts at the Bronx Zoo's World of Reptiles. Well, I thought, that's one way to get a pet.
I never gave any thought to lifting a baby from a zoo I knew, but that was also just me. If I had taken it upon myself to steal a baby python, at the very least I would have been able to provide for it, mostly because I'm a zookeeper. Many people who would rob zoos of their animals would have no idea what to do with the animal once they got it. Monkeys, reptiles, and parrots, the species most likely to be pilfered, require specialized care, with special diets and veterinary requirements. If the thief finds that they are unable to satisfy those, are they likely to turn themselves in or risk getting caught dropping the animal back off at the zoo? Not likely. More likely, the animals will suffer.
I hear lots of visitors make jokes about animals - wallabies, sloths, tamarins, penguins - wanting to take them home to cuddle and love. I seldom say anything, because I know that 99% of the time, it's just talk. Still, it's worthwhile reminding visitors that there is a reason that some animals are in the zoo, and not in Petsmart - they don't make good pets and they have special care needs. Of course, if someone is already committed to breaking the law and risking jail time for their own personal gratification, animal welfare probably doesn't rank too high on their worries list.
I'm glad that most of the Santa Fe critters have made it back home. Hopefully, the rest will join them soon.