The San Francisco Zoo is offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who can help recover Banana Sam, a two-pound, 17-year-old squirrel monkey nabbed from the zoo overnight Friday. But the audacious heist of the beloved monkey begs a question: Why would anyone steal a monkey, or any other zoo animal for that matter?
In 2009, Palm Beach, Fla., police arrested several teenagers after the heist of three squirrel monkeys and a Goeldi's monkey – Simone, Sallie, Dougie and Elsie – and a Green-Cheeked Amazon parrot with a gimpy leg named Chalupa. Investigators believed the animals may have been bound for sale. Available as pets in the US, the monkeys can sell for as much as $3,000.
The Palm Beach Zoo also had four tamarin monkeys stolen in 1998, three of which were recovered after they apparently escaped from their captor.
``We've seen them surface on the pet market here in Florida, so that's what we think they were taken for,'' curator Randi Meyerson McCormick told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper at the time. ``Actually, though, they're very lousy pets. They bite and scratch and they're loud. We're kind of laughing at the idea that right now someone is trying to have this monkey as a pet.''
Other zoo theft motives have been more mundane. A theft of a mother and daughter pair of Koalas from the San Francisco Zoo in 2000 turned out have been carried out by two teenage boys wanting to impress their girlfriends with exotic Christmas presents.
While zoo thefts are relatively rare in the US, a study in 2006 showed that 40 percent of European zoos had been burglarized, with over 80 monkeys stolen according to the National Theft Register in Britain. One investigator, John Hayward, likened the zoo theft rings to international crime syndicates “like the gangs that go after art or antiques.”
More common in the US are pet thefts. The percentage of dogs stolen for sale or even for ransom rose by 32 percent from 2010 to 2011, the American Kennel Club reports.
For his part, Banana Sam has been rescued before from dire circumstances. He's one of 20 male squirrel monkeys given to the zoo in 2010 after a local research lab was shuttered. "We are hoping he has nine lives and will be rescued again," Tanya Peterson, the zoo's executive director, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Meanwhile, someone outside the zoo has set up a Twitter account for Banana Sam, where some 1,500 people are following his imagined exploits. “Went to monkey bars in Golden Gate Park playground, left disappointed,” @SF_Banana Sam tweeted Friday night.