On the first day of school in Krefeld, a city in Germany near the Rhine River, the zoo was nearly empty. Overhead a low, gray sky dribbled rain, and the animals must have been enjoying the peace and quiet after the busy summer season.
“Here in Krefeld, you get very close to the animals,” said Wolfgang Dressen, the zoo director. We were standing beside the camel exhibit, where a low rope fence keeps visitors from stepping inside the enclosure. “Last year I decided to have this rope because of selfies,” Dressen said.
Moving on to the gorilla house, Dressen, a middle-aged man with blue eyes and graying brown hair, ran his finger along a metal grate he had installed around the windows. “Can you smell it?” he asked enthusiastically. “We have this kind of grate so you can smell the gorillas.”
But I hadn’t come to Zoo Krefeld to see Dressen’s proudest exhibits. He led me along a pathway past the meerkats, the red river hogs, and the pink pelicans to a pond with a leafy island at its center.
“This is the enclosure,” Dressen said. A few ducks, squatters from the wild, were resting at the water’s edge. The island was otherwise empty, the only indication of its former tenants a sign that read: “In the summer of 2015 our precious golden lion tamarins were stolen by professional animal dealers.”
Thieves had broken into the zoo on the night of July 24 and removed the crate where a pair of golden lion tamarins and their adolescent daughter slept. Although trespassers had snuck into the zoo after hours on other occasions—one prankster opened the cheetah enclosure in 2002, allowing the female to escape and kill 10 kangaroos—none had stolen animals since Dressen became director in 2003.
The next morning, when Dressen discovered the theft, he called the police and began notifying other zoos. He was surprised to learn that Krefeld wasn’t the first victim of such a crime. Just two months earlier, in May 2015, seven golden lion tamarins had disappeared from ZooParc de Beauval, in France. The previous year five golden lion tamarins vanished from Apenheul Primate Park, in the Netherlands.
In each case the perpetrators had been efficient and professional. The Krefeld thieves appear to have scouted the scene and carefully planned the heist. “It is definitely organized crime,” Dressen said.
It’s easy to see why a person might want a golden lion tamarin as a pet—the pocket-sized monkeys have fur so orange they look as if they’d been dyed in Tang. They’re an endangered species from Brazil, however, and cannot be sold for commercial purposes under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which regulates the global wildlife trade. On the black market a breeding pair can fetch more than $30,000.
“A REALLY SEVERE PROBLEM”
Golden lion tamarins are far from zoo thieves’ only plunder. Since 2011 some 400 animals have been stolen from European zoos. In 2015 alone, 25 members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria reported thefts.
“It is really a severe problem,” says Volker Homes, the director of the Association of Zoological Gardens in Germany. Zoos have lost small primates, including ring-tailed lemurs, silvery marmosets, and squirrel monkeys. Reptiles and exotic birds, like parrots and penguins, are common targets too. In one case thieves stole 79 tortoises from a French zoo in a single swoop.
The golden lion tamarin thefts were especially upsetting to the zoo community because in recent decades they’ve served as an emblem species for the transformation of zoos.
Before the 1950s zoos captured animals from the wild without much concern for their welfare. But as the conservation movement picked up in the second half of the 20th century, zoos began to rethink their purpose and change their practices: They wanted to be seen as institutions that protect animals in the wild, and the cornerstone of their makeover was cooperative breeding. They developed breeding programs in which animals are exchanged between zoos to limit inbreeding and create sustainable captive populations.
A zoo animal was no longer a caged curiosity but rather an “ambassador” to raise awareness about its species’ plight in the wild. In some cases, if the breeding program was successful enough, animals could even be returned to their natural habitat.
No species told this story better than the golden lion tamarin. By the 1970s deforestation had pushed the monkeys to the brink of extinction: Only about 150 survived in the Atlantic rain forest in Brazil. Several conservation and zoo professionals, led by staff from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., established the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program in 1983 to breed the monkeys in captivity and restore their natural habitat. The tamarins did so well that zoos began reintroducing captive-bred tamarins into privately held forest, and in 1998 the organization and its partners helped the Brazilian government buy tracts of prime habitat near Rio de Janeiro to create a biological reserve.
Today 3,200 golden lion tamarins live free in the wild in Brazil, and 150 zoos hold another 550 around the world. The zoo tamarins technically belong to the Brazilian government, but they’re managed as if they were a single population, with zoos regularly trading the animals to minimize inbreeding.
This effort is overseen by Jennifer Mickelberg, the senior director of collections and conservation at Zoo Atlanta and the keeper of the International Golden Lion Tamarin Studbook, which describes the parentage of every zoo tamarin in the world.
During the past five years, Mickelberg has had the dispiriting task of listing 17 tamarins as stolen, all from European zoos. “It is definitely concerning,” she says. “We went from knowing where every single individual in captivity was to now having animals outside of that managed population.”
A missing tamarin isn’t just unfortunate for the stolen animal—it hurts the entire species. A tamarin kept as a pet outside the zoos’ breeding program contributes nothing to the survival of the species.
“The thefts are reducing the genetic pool of the species, which is a very small genetic pool,” says Eric Bairrão Ruivo, chairman of European zoos’ Taxon Advisory Group for tamarins and the collection and conservation director at ZooParc de Beauval, whose golden lion tamarins were stolen in 2015.
“THE LAST ONE AVAILABLE”
In February 2017 a French company called International Wild & Exotic Live Stock advertised a pair of golden lion tamarins from a private breeder for $30,000. One month earlier a seller from Minnesota advertised a golden lion tamarin on Facebook, claiming it was “the last one available.”
Neither business replied to requests for comment, so it’s unclear how they got their tamarins. It’s possible they were descendants of tamarins taken from the wild before the species was protected in 1975. Or they may have been poached from the wild in Brazil. But no official records of any such animals exist. “The only captive golden lion tamarins outside of our managed population that we know of are stolen,” Mickelberg says.
Many zoo animals have identifying microchips. A veterinarian treating one of these animals would likely scan the chip and learn its origin—but no stolen zoo animal is known to have been returned this way. In only a handful of cases, usually involving thefts by unscrupulous employees, have zoos recovered stolen animals.
Zoo and law enforcement authorities believe that most animals stolen from Western Europe are smuggled into Eastern Europe, then sold to wealthy collectors in Asia, elsewhere in Europe, and in the Middle East.
“My fear is that somebody has ordered these people to go to the zoo to identify the breeding group, because mostly complete breeding groups are being stolen,” says Franz Boehmer, an agent for Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.
Despite the global nature of these crimes, Europol, the coordinated European police force, says no EU member has ever requested help investigating a case of theft involving zoo animals. Even though thieves within the EU can easily cross national borders, investigations usually fall to local police departments that don’t have the reach or resources to track down criminals.
In Krefeld the local police ruled out the zookeepers as suspects, and they told Dressen that whoever stole the golden lion tamarins probably fled the country within hours of the crime and that it would be difficult to track them down. “Our police department thinks they have been sold in Eastern Europe,” says Daniel Uebber, a spokesman for the Krefeld police.
DID KREFELD’S TAMARINS END UP IN SLOVAKIA?
A week after the 2015 tamarin theft, Dressen received a tip from a man who had heard about a pair of golden lion tamarins for sale in Slovakia for nearly $30,000. The sellers, Dressen’s source said, claimed to have gotten the animals recently from Germany. Dressen passed the tip along to the office of the district attorney for Krefeld. But the lawyer said no suspects could be identified and closed the investigation in October 2015.
In February 2017 Dressen met Boehmer, the German wildlife agent who had been keeping an eye on zoo thefts across Europe. Boehmer had shared Dressen’s tip with his counterparts in Slovakia. “We know that the animals might have been in Slovakia, but we don’t know if they are still here or were traded away,” said Lieutenant Pavel Matulay, an officer investigating environmental crime for the Slovakian national police.
Occasionally zoo thieves have an even more pernicious motive than selling an animal into the pet trade. In March 2017 poachers broke into the Zoo de Thoiry in France, killed an adult rhinoceros, and sawed off its horn. “This was the first time rhino poaching was happening in a western zoo,” says Colomba de la Panouse-Turnbull, a senior executive whose father founded Zoo de Thoiry.
WHAT THEFTS MEAN FOR ZOOS
Very soon after Krefeld’s tamarins disappeared, Dressen hired a security patrol. But thieves returned in December 2015 and made off with two hyacinth macaws, a threatened species of large blue parrot that can sell for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. So Dressen beefed up security by reinforcing locks, upgrading the alarm system, and instituting nightly security checks. Since then there have been no crimes at Krefeld.
But the rhino killing at Thoiry worries Dressen. Krefeld has one of Germany’s only breeding programs for black rhinos, and he recently opened a new African exhibit where the rhinos could sleep outside. “This is our philosophy, to keep them outside,” he said, as we watched a baby rhino munch hay beside its mother.
The replacement of iron cages with open, naturalistic exhibits was, like the breeding programs, a signature of zoos’ evolution, making life better for the animals and the zoo experience better for visitors—but also facilitating robberies by greedy animal dealers. It’s usually easier and cheaper to snatch an animal from a zoo in Europe than to find and extract one from the wild. A zoo with acres of open land is harder to secure and police than an interior public institution like a museum.
“With these crimes we go backwards again,” Dressen said. “We have to lock the animals inside.”
Ben Crair is a writer based in Berlin. He has contributed to publications including The New York Times, Smithsonian, Bloomberg Businessweek, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.