Pet theft

Stolen animals, from exotic pets to agricultural livestock, are ransomed with alarming regularity in Israel, yet the authorities appear incapable of curtailing the phenomenon.

October 11, 2007 08:57
madagascar monkey 88 224

madagascar monkey 88 224. (photo credit: )


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Twenty years ago, my friends' pedigree golden retriever disappeared. Dee was a beautiful creature with a turquoise collar. My friends had come from California for a sabbatical year at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and they lived with their dog and three children in a lovely house on the fenced and gated campus. Heartbroken, they went to the police and then posted "Lost Dog" signs with Dee's picture all over town and in the local press. One night at 3 a.m., the telephone rang and woke them up. A man's voice offered to return the dog if they hand over a huge sum of money. I can't remember the amount, but it wasoutrageous.

Many weeks later, I found their dog. I happened to be driving out of Rehovot toward Jerusalem and I saw a golden retriever roaming the street. It had a rough string around its neck. I stopped, called out "Dee! Dee?" and indeed the dog approached, looked at me wistfully, but then turned away. I immediately drove back to find my friend. Together we returned to the place where I had seen the dog. She called out his name and he came running up to her. It was her dog and so she took him home. But Dee no longer barked and he seemed very fearful. The vet said that he had been terrorized to keep him quiet.

Not being a pet person myself, I never paid attention to the illustrated signs in our neighborhood that periodically appear on lampposts announcing that a pedigree cat or dog has disappeared. It was only when I began to volunteer at the Wing of Love wildlife park at Kibbutz Kfar Menahem that I realized the extent of the criminal activity aimed at animal lovers. The Wing of Love non-profit organization has rented the park and its zoo for 20 years, and set it up as a center for rehabilitating youth at risk. A group of teenage boys in full-time care comes to the park every morning for an eight-hour day, during which they feed the animals, learn and maintain the park. They open the zoo to visitors on certain days, by prior arrangement. Each boy is responsible for a group of animals in the park.

A horse was stolen one night and the next night the robber came back for a second horse. The boy in charge of the horses was devastated. Then most of the parrots, parakeets and cockatiels were stolen, just as the breeding season was beginning. These fetch hundreds of shekels in the pet market. The following year, at the same time of year, the robbers came back for all the rest of our lovebirds, parrots and parakeets. They simply emptied all the cages of the small colorful birds.

Last winter, two brown lemurs were stolen. M., who cares for the animals in the park, registered the theft of these two Madagascar monkeys with the police in nearby Kiryat Malachi. If the police were to find them, she was asked, could she prove that they belong to Wing of Love? Without an identification tag or a DNA fingerprint, we couldn't prove our ownership, even if they were found. Clearly the police wouldn't bother wasting time on such a case. They told her of two places where she might go and look for them, but M. understandably wasn't about to take the law into her own hands and poke her nose into the yards of suspected thieves.

Supposing, for the sake of argument, that she was a fearless black-belt karate expert and located the stolen monkeys exactly where the police told her to look - then what? Would they honestly give them back to her? And supposing she had enough evidence regarding the suspected thief, his friends would be back for more animals sooner or later. And even if the robber was to serve a prison sentence of a year or two, the chances are that he'll resume his raids soon after his release. M. went home despondent.

On the first weekend in March, again just as the breeding season began last spring, robbers helped themselves to the only fertile pair of crowned cranes in Israel, from the Wing of Love zoo. We had just received congratulations from the International Crane Foundation for succeeding to breed this rare species that is endangered in its natural habitat. The birds are large and spectacular; about 1 m (3.3 ft) long, with a 1.87 m (6.2 ft) wingspan and weigh about 3.6 kg (8 lbs) each. Their natural habitat is the dry savannah south of the Sahara desert; it is the national bird of Nigeria.

These exotic birds engage in a courtship dance that involves jumping, bowing and wing-flapping with loud calls. They were the pride of the zoo, and the center of attraction for visitors. The robbers left behind the single males; they took only the fertile pair. To buy a new pair, we would have to comb the breeding farms around the world. A French farm charges 2,500 Euros (over NIS 14,000) and a Dutch farm asks for 3,000 Euros (over NIS 17,000), but neither have any in stock. The freight charges and paperwork for importing these large birds would easily inflate the expense by two or three-fold, and there would be no guarantee that the pair would breed. For us to replace the cranes would involve an outlay of tens of thousands of shekels, which we don't have.

M. immediately notified all the zoos of our latest theft, in case someone would try to sell them a pair of cranes. She then returned to the local police station, where again she was asked if we had a DNA "fingerprint" of the stolen animals. No, she answered, forlornly. The police came out to look for human fingerprints, but found none. The robbers apparently wore gloves.

The Parrot Society website clarifies the legal situation: To legally claim stolen birds as the owner's property, "the owner must be able to positively identify each bird to the law enforcement agencies or in a court of law. Many owners who can positively identify their stock have not legally been able to get them back because of lack of legal proof of ownership."

The robbers evidently know this and are free to continue plundering.

As with my friend's dog, a few weeks later a caller offers the return of the stolen cranes, if we pay NIS 12,000. Should we try to take out a bank loan to get back the zoo's stolen treasure? It would cost much more to replace the couple. Should we pay to free the birds, which could die in their new captivity? Animal lovers all said we should. But should we give in to such bribery and corruption? If we were to pay, the thieves would come back and steal again a week or two later and demand more money. If we were to pay, our youth at risk would learn that robbery pays - they come to our park for rehabilitation, not for lessons in crime. It was very clear that, however much we want to get back our cranes, it is wrong to buy them back.

Israel is far from unique in having animal robbers. In June 2006, the theft of exotic animals from zoos hit the headlines in Europe. "Criminal gangs are targeting small zoos and safari parks to meet the demand from private collectors intent on amassing a 'Noah's Ark,'" according to The Independent of London which reported that 40 percent of zoos across Europe have fallen victim to animal thieves. In the UK alone, thieves got away with some 80 monkeys, an alligator and rare birds. The theft just before Christmas 2005 of an 18-inch baby penguin named Toga from a zoo in southern England won most publicity, and the donations that soon flowed in to the zoo enabled its manager to offer a $13,000 reward for its safe return. Toga was never returned, and it is unlikely that he survived for long without the diet of his parents' regurgitated food.

In November 2005, four armed masked thieves raided a zoo in Gaza and grabbed a lion cub as well as two Arabic-speaking parrots. Just two months ago, after a brief gunfight, Hamas police seized back the stolen lion from one of Gaza's clans. The lion had lost four teeth, its claws and part of its tail. M.'s biggest fear is that our cranes have been similarly abused by their Jewish captors.

A website set up by Amichai Ellinson of Mishmar Hasharon documents the problem of pet thefts from kibbutz "animal corners." He gives advice on setting up security systems to prevent such thefts, including having a watchman on the site around the clock. But few small zoos can afford such an expense. At Sde Boker, burglars visited the animal corner three times in the space of as many weeks and completely emptied it of all its exotic birds.

Ellinson warns us to be wary of suspicious characters who come to scout around in the daytime and plan their next foray. Indeed, one day someone came into the Wing of Love park uninvited and looked around. He came back a few days later with a couple of teenagers. The zoo staff didn't like the look of them and told them to leave. One wrote down the van's number plate and went to the police. It turned out to be a car whose owner's license was canceled by court order. There was no way we could prove if it was this particular trio who came at night to remove our horses, monkeys and birds.

"It's not our job to run after robbers," protested angry livestock breeders after Shai Dromi's arrest. Dromi kept a guard dog, had locks on the pens of his sheep, and slept at his ranch in the northern Negev. After repeatedly losing his flock and guard dogs to robberies and poisoning, he took his father's gun to defend his livestock against intruders. At 3 a.m. on January 13 this year he woke up hearing noises from the sheep pens. He shot at the intruders, killing one and wounding another. The dead man had already served four years in jail for agricultural theft. Dromi was arrested for murder and possession of a gun without a license. "The country has abandoned farmers to their fates," said Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon at the time of Dromi's arrest.

The website of the Israel Cattle Breeders Association posts the details of all the reported thefts of cattle and sheep in Israel, month by month, as well as updates on court rulings regarding animal robbers in custody. There were a total of 4,651 recorded thefts of cattle and sheep from 2004 until the last update in August 2007. Just in April this year, 127 animals were stolen - 19 different breeders reported having cattle stolen in the area between Beersheba and Rehovot, whereas only three breeders were robbed in the north that month.

The market price for cattle is about NIS 6,000 per animal. Breeders are employing night watchmen to oversee their herds. The punishment for the thief who is caught (most are not caught) is imprisonment; 15 months plus a fine in one case, and 23 months in a second case, where the thief had a previous criminal record that included knifing, driving without a license and other thefts.

Insurance companies are now asking for horse owners to obtain genetic fingerprinting for their steeds. And the Agriculture Ministry has taken a decision to number, register and take DNA samples of all the cattle in the country - a project that will take time to implement.

Just a few months ago, a Golan rancher was robbed of 36 cows and calves, but not his whole herd. The police located the stolen animals in the Negev and took them into custody. In the meantime, the Golan rancher turned to Bactochem, a Ness Ziona company that does genetic fingerprinting and holds a DNA bank of cattle and horses. From the genetic fingerprints of the cows still on the ranch, Bactochem was able to prove a family connection with the fingerprints they took from the stolen herd. The rancher was able to bring this as proof of ownership to court and won back his stolen herd. Bactochem only do genetic fingerprinting of horses and cattle at the moment, not exotic birds or lemurs.

Some thieves specialize in cars, some go for computers or air conditioners, and some pick our favorite animals. The car has a chassis number and the animals need a DNA fingerprint - not only to insure against theft, but also to enable the owner to reclaim his stolen goods. Without such information, though, the thefts will continue from our park, from unfortified animal corners around the country, from breeders and from people's private yards.

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