AS THEY do every other day, employees at the Santa Ana Zoo showed up early on July 28 last year to get ready for the public to arrive.
This time, however, something was amiss. Lemurs and capuchin monkeys were wandering loose, strolling the lush grounds of the zoo in California’s Orange County like small furry tourists. Someone had cut gaping holes in the chain-link fences surrounding the primates’ enclosures, allowing them to escape.
Using grapes as a bribe, zookeepers rounded up all the animals for a head count. One was missing: A 32-year-old endangered lemur named Isaac. An inquisitive and easygoing senior, he is believed to be the oldest ring-tailed lemur living in captivity in North America.
“Especially for an animal like that, [which] has such special care, and a senior animal, we were very worried,” zoo’s Director Ethan Fisher told The Washington Post.
Almost as soon as zoo officials notified authorities and began planning a search party, things took an even stranger turn. A call came in from the police department in Newport Beach, some 10 miles from Santa Ana. Just after 2am, police said, employees at a Marriott hotel had discovered a strange parcel near the front door.
“This belongs to the Santa Ana Zoo,” read a hand-scrawled note attached to the plastic container. “It was taken last night please bring it to police.”
Another note detailed the package’s contents, “Lemur (with tracker).”
Fisher still is not sure exactly how the culprit figured out that Isaac had an implanted microchip that would allow veterinarians to identify him, but he and the rest of the staff were just happy to get the ageing lemur back unharmed. The question of who had been behind the late-night zoo heist – and why – remained a mystery.
Then police discovered the diamond ring.
Valued at nearly USD4,500 and crafted by the French jeweller Chopard, it turned up at a pawnshop in Costa Mesa, California, in November 2018, according to the Los Angeles Times. The serial number on the ring matched one that had been stolen from a private residence on Newport Beach’s affluent Balboa Island, along with about USD70,000 worth of other jewellery. For months, a string of home burglaries had rocked the coastal community, putting residents on edge as their wedding rings and family heirlooms disappeared, and leading at least one anguished victim to wonder if one of her own friends could have robbed her.
Police soon learned that the Chopard ring had been pawned by Aquinas “Quinn” Kasbar, 19, who became locally famous in the summer of 2018 when a viral video showed him surfing a massive wave on an air mattress. The teenager had also sold USD52,000 worth of diamonds to another pawnshop, according to an affidavit obtained by the Times.
One night, detectives followed him to a scenic overlook, where he allegedly dumped a stolen safe that had once contained passports, Rolex watches and USD4,000 cash. Inside a storage unit he rented, they found even more luxury goods, including ostrich-skin Birkin bags valued at over USD20,000 and Fender guitars.
According to KCAL, Los Angeles’ CBS affiliate, police officers cornered Kasbar in a parking lot near the Pacific Coast Highway in December, but he jumped into the bay and swam away, forcing the Orange County Sheriff’s Office harbour patrol to fish him out of the water. He was arrested and pleaded not guilty to the 29 felony and three misdemeanour counts that he faces for the alleged burglaries, the Times reported.
Then in May, while Kasbar waited to go on trial, authorities announced that he was also a suspect in another case: the after-hours heist at the Santa Ana Zoo.
While investigating the home burglaries, detectives found unspecified evidence linking Kasbar to Isaac’s mysterious disappearance, according to the Times. On Monday, the teen pleaded guilty to unlawfully taking an endangered species, admitting in his plea agreement that he had cut open the fencing with bolt cutters after the zoo closed for the night, then left with the elderly lemur.
Though prosecutors noted the existence of a thriving illegal pet trade for ring-tailed lemurs, who are considered a critically endangered species, Kasbar indicated through the plea agreement that he didn’t intend to sell the wide-eyed primate: He “wanted to keep it as a pet”.
“My client accepted responsibility today for a mistake he made as a high school student,” Kasbar’s attorney, Brian Gurwitz, told the Orange County Register on Monday, noting that Kasbar had left a note to ensure that the lemur was safely returned to the zoo. “He quickly regretted his decision.”
Nearly a year after he was left outside the Marriott, Isaac is doing well, and there’s no indication that he was too shaken up by the episode. Now 33 – he recently celebrated his birthday – he loves following the zookeepers around and eating grapes. The zoo has six lemurs in total, so Isaac “has some lady companions,” Fisher said. Despite his advanced age, Isaac still eats well and takes good care of himself, and he appears to be in solid health.
Typically, lemurs have a life span of 20 to 25 years, but they can live into their early 30s. Searching through records shared by other zoological associations, the Santa Ana Zoo has been unable to find any lemurs older than Isaac, Fisher said.
Kasbar is not doing quite as well. Because ring-tailed lemurs are an endangered species, removing Isaac from the zoo was a federal offence, punishable with a maximum USD100,000 fine and one-year prison sentence. He will return to court for a sentencing hearing in October. He also has yet to face trial for the jewellery thefts.
The zoo is “just really happy that there’s some resolution,” Fisher said. He hopes the outcome of the court case will deter others from trying similar stunts in the future and notes that ring-tailed lemurs do not make good house pets, despite their endearing personalities.
It’s illegal to own one, and the animals also require lots of special care. Isaac’s diet is custom-formulated by veterinary staff to ensure that he gets the appropriate amount of fruits, pellets and fresh leaves each day. Primates as a whole tend to be messy animals, and, like any other wild creatures, they’re not housebroken and they will bite.
In short, Fisher said, anyone looking for an animal companion is better off adopting a cat or dog or hamster – not taking a lemur from the zoo.
“I don’t think it was the brightest idea,” Fisher said. “And clearly it was not well thought through.” – Text by The Washington Post