By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh
It’s not every day that you hear of a heist being planned at the zoo down the road. Indeed, in the day of the life of a police officer, it’s surely one of the stranger cases to come across the desk.
However, on September 22, 2018, police charged a man and a woman in connection to allegedly stealing a four-week-old meerkat from its enclosure at Perth Zoo. The meerkat was discovered at a house in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region.
Earlier that week on Wednesday afternoon, the staff at Perth Zoo noticed the baby meerkat, born on August 20, had vanished from its enclosure, less than 24 hours before it was supposed to be introduced to the public to celebrate its birth.
With no sign of the small creature in its nest box, and a search of the park’s grounds that proved unsuccessful, zoo keepers feared the worst – that it may have been captured by a predatory bird. It sparked a frantic search and a plea for help of its whereabouts, the disappearance being particularly upsetting given the newborn was the only member to survive from its litter of five, and moreover, because staff at the zoo had not yet been able to determine its sex or even give it a name.
On Friday, almost two days after the meerkat had gone missing, a series of inquiries guided Kensington Police to a property in Beverly, approximately two hours east of Perth, where a search warrant was executed. At about 6pm that evening, police found the baby meerkat in the home.
The meerkat was then returned to its nest box at the zoo.
Beverly Duo Charged via Summons
Following the discovery, Cannington Detectives and Kensington Police charged the Beverly duo via summons.
A 22-year-old-man was summonsed for the offence of stealing, while a 23-year-old woman was summonsed for the offence of receiving.
Speaking to ABC Radio Perth, the curator of operations at Perth Zoo, John Lemon, said staff were distressed by the disappearance, which also foiled the zoo’s public event on Thursday to mark the meerkat’s birth.
“We take utmost pride in looking after the welfare and husbandry of these animals, so we do take it quite tough,” Mr Lemon said.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the zoo confirmed that the one-month-old baby meerkat was back in the hands of experts after being “illegally taken from its home.”
Stolen Meerkat Recovering but “Very Stressed”
On Saturday, the meerkat enclosure at Perth Zoo was closed for the young animal to recuperate. According to staff at the zoo, it is recovering well but “very stressed” away from its family.
Speaking of the stressful case, senior veterinarian at Perth Zoo, Simone Vitale said the meerkat was “very stressed and tired and hungry, just like any bub that’s been away from mum.”
“But after an evening of getting its favourite foods and getting a bit of warmth and a bit of quiet, it’s really bounced back quite well, so we’re quite happy with its progress so far,” Ms Vitali said.
She reassured that “all the things are lining up that we’re going to have a good outcome.”
Staff at the zoo have since been busy preparing to reintroduce the little animal back successfully with its family. The meerkat’s mum Bamba was transferred to Perth from Victoria’s Werribee Open Range Zoo, while its father, although unknown, is believed to be a meerkat named ‘Runako’.
Perth Zoo forms a part of the regional breeding program for meerkats. It safeguards a future for the species should numbers in the wild diminish.
Stolen Meerkat a Strange Case Leaving Police “Standing up Like a Meerkat”
While the specific details of the heist have so far been scant, Sergeant Kelland said police and the staff at Perth Zoo would persist with investigations of the case in the coming weeks to work out exactly how the baby meerkat was pilfered from its nest box.
Sergeant Kelland said that while it was a relief to have a positive outcome to the case with full faith that the officers assigned will get to the bottom of it, that it was certainly one of the stranger cases to arrive at Kensington Police.
“I don’t think there’s anything normal about anything being stolen from a zoo,” Sergeant Kelland said.
“You hear about it, you hear rumours about things like this, but being involved in it is a completely different thing.
It’s definitely got us standing up like a meerkat.”
Punishment for Stealing in NSW for the Offence of Stealing Animals Ordinarily Kept in Confinement
In NSW, the offence of stealing animals etc ordinarily kept in confinement is reflected in Section 505 of the Crimes Act 1900. It attracts a term of up to 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $550. It is considered a summary offence which means it will end up being finalised in the local court.
You will be guilty of the charge of stealing an animal ordinarily kept in confinement if each of the following elements are proven by the prosecution:
- The animal was taken and carried away by you with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of it; and
- You did this without the owner’s consent; and
- The animal belonged to someone other than you; and
- You took the animal dishonestly according to standards of ordinary decent people.
Further to this, Section 506 of the Crimes Act 1900 also states a second offence. It states:
Whosoever, having been convicted under this or any former Act of any such offence as is mentioned in Section 505, afterwards commits any offences in the said section mentioned shall, on conviction by the Local Court, be liable to imprisonment for one year.
Defences to a Charge of Stealing Animals
You will be not guilty if any of the following defences apply to you for a charge of stealing animals ordinarily kept in confinement:
- Claim of Right: You will be not guilty to this charge if you took the animal genuinely believing that you were legally justified in taking it (even if you are in fact legally wrong in that claim).
- The owner of the animal provided consent to take it.
- At the time of taking the animal, you had no intention to permanently deprive the owner of it. This is a difficult defence to run because often the intention to permanently deprive will be inherent within the action of taking the animal without consent.
If you took the animal without the owner’s consent for your own benefit or for the benefit of another person with the intention of eventually returning or restoring it will not be a defence to this charge- you will still be guilty of stealing an animal under this charge.
The Offence of Receiving Stolen Goods in NSW
In NSW, it is an offence to accept stolen property if:
- You received property (which includes an animal). You will be considered to have received it if you had ‘possession’ of it; and
- That property was previously stolen before you received it in the sense that the stealing was a ‘larceny offence’. It’s not necessary here to prove who actually stole it; and
- At the time of receiving the property, you either knew or believed it to be stolen. You will be considered to have that knowledge or belief if it’s considered the only rational inference available on the evidence. The court here can draw inferences to determine this by looking into the surrounding circumstances the accused was in at the time.
A person guilty of receiving stolen property (being property other than a motor vehicle or vessel) in NSW will face a penalty of up to a term of 10 years imprisonment.
In the event the stolen property received is a motor vehicle (or motor vehicle part), or vessel (or vessel part), the maximum penalty is a term of up to 12 years imprisonment.
This offence is referred to as “Receiving Stolen Property where Stealing is a Serious Indictable Offence” and is contained in section 188 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).
If you have been charged for receiving stolen property, where the value of the property is more than $5,000, the matter will be finalised in the Local Court unless the Department of Public Prosecutions or you choose to have the case finalised in the District Court.
Should the value of the property be less than $5,000, the matter will be finalised in the Local Court unless the Department of Public Prosecutions chooses to have the case finalised in the District Court.
Defences to a Charge of Receiving Stolen Goods
You will be not guilty if any of the following defences apply to you for a charge of receiving stolen property in NSW:
- You didn’t have possession of the property. This is where you either:
- Didn’t have knowledge that the property was located from where it was found by police; or
- You didn’t have free access and exclusive right to take the actual manual control over the property if the property was located somewhere else; or
- There is a reasonable possibility that someone other than you had free access and exclusive right to take control over the property. This defence can apply if the prosecution is not running a case that you had joint possession with the other person.
- At the time of receiving the property you didn’t know (or you didn’t believe) it was stolen, even if you subsequently discovered or believed that it was stolen. Where you are found to have had a suspicion that it was stolen at the time you received it, you will still be not guilty.
- There is no evidence that the property in question was actually previously stolen constituting an offence of larceny.
Our Sydney criminal lawyers are available 24/7 to take your calls if you have any questions arising from this blog.