Police say it's likely a prankster who broke into the zoo and set primates free before having second thoughts
The handwritten note gave no immediate clue about who had written it or why.
“This belongs to the Santa Ana zoo it was taken last night please bring it to police,” it said.
The note was attached to a crate marked “SA Zoo” that was left at the front entrance of the Newport Beach Marriott Bayview hotel in Orange County, California, during predawn hours on Saturday, Santa Ana police spokesman Anthony Bertagna tells PEOPLE.
Inside the crate was a rare 32-year-old ring-tailed lemur named Isaac, who had disappeared from the zoo in a still-unsolved bit of monkey business that involved actual monkeys.
Before learning about the note and the crate with the lemur, police had been called to the animal park at 6:57 a.m. Saturday, after maintenance workers arrived to find lemurs and Capuchin monkeys wandering free from their caged enclosures.
Police say that sometime after the zoo’s 5:30 p.m. Friday closing and the hotel drop-off of Isaac captured on surveillance video around 1 a.m. Saturday, a person or persons apparently breached the 20-acre zoo’s protective perimeter by scaling a fence.
Inside the park — which opened in 1952 with the promise that there would be at least 50 monkeys on the grounds at all times — that person or persons then used a bolt cutter to break into two adjoining primate enclosures.
One enclosure had held eight Capuchin monkeys; two of those later were found sitting outside and on top of the enclosure, zoo manager Ethan Fisher tells PEOPLE. The other enclosure held six of the ring-tailed lemurs, four of which were roaming the zoo grounds, which includes the 50 Monkey Ferris Wheel that opened in May.
As zoo staff members, aided by animal control and police, worked to round up the primates, Isaac was nowhere to be found.
Then Santa Ana police received a call from Newport Beach police about the crate containing an animal at the hotel about eight miles away.
“The lemur is actually on the endangered species list for the federal government, which makes taking one of them a federal crime,” says Bertagna. “At this point we’re trying to find out if this was the theft of an animal because it was on that endangered species list, or if this was some kind of prank.”
Because the animal was left unharmed and in a public place with the note attached so that it could be safely returned, authorities are leaning toward a prank, Bertagna says.
“Somebody out there knows,” he says. “We don’t.”
The hotel surveillance video, which shows a slender person in a hoodie who appears to be male, so far has offered little help to detectives. The crate, about as big as a dog carrier and labeled “SA Zoo” that appears to have been grabbed at the park to carry the lemur off, might suggest an inside job, although police and zoo officials say they’ve found no evidence to support that theory.
“We have a professional group of animal care staff here and that didn’t cross my mind,” says the zoo manager Fisher.
“At this point we’re looking at all potential angles,” says the police spokesman.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
None of the animals, including Isaac, appeared to be physically or emotionally injured by the experience, says Fisher. The enclosures quickly were repaired and the zoo reopened that same day with only a slight delay.
“People do all sorts of crazy things,” he says, when asked to speculate on why someone might want to free or steal an animal. “It’s hard to get inside someone else’s head and figure out what they were thinking.”
“My number one hope coming out of this is that it isn’t something that happens again either here or at any other zoo,” he says. (On the same day as the zoo incident, three people allegedly stole a shark from a Texas aquarium by disguising it as a baby in a stroller. The shark was recovered.) “It really does have an effect on the animals, the staff and the community,” he says.
Isaac, a resident of the zoo since 2000 who favors grapes and is the oldest among the park’s current 65 primates, “quickly reintegrated back into the group and all seems well,” says Fisher.
“The Capuchins, they had a fun day exploring.”