SAN FRANCISCO – Acting on an anonymous tip, police early Thursday recovered two female koalas which had been stolen from their enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo.
“They are OK,” zoo spokesman Nancy Chan said as she watched the animals Thursday morning. “They apparently were really hungry, so they went right into their night quarters and they were fed right away.”
Leanne, 7, and her mother, Pat, 15, were discovered missing from their indoor quarters Wednesday morning by a keeper.
Zoo officials said it appeared someone climbed onto the exhibit’s roof, broke through a skylight and then slipped into the building through a furnace door late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
“We received an anonymous phone call early today and that led to the location where the (koalas) were found,” said a police dispatcher who asked that her name not be used.
The call came in at 12:45 a.m., the dispatcher said, adding that she was not aware of any arrests at the home at 18 Sparta St.
Zoo officials were summoned to return the 11-pound missing marsupials to the climate-controlled enclosure they share with five other koalas.
“We are ecstatic,” said General Curator David Robinett as he watched the rare marsupials dining on eucalyptus buds. “They appear to be in excellent health.”
Robinett said the animals were quickly returned to their enclosure and given something to eat.
“They immediately started eating,” he said. “Eating this fast is a good sign, but they are definitely under stress.”
Robinett was one of the zoo personnel who went to the house to recover the marsupials. He said they were sitting in a bedroom.
Koala keeper Nancy Rumsey told investigators she had been concerned about two men she saw Christmas day in the keeper’s area. One of the men said he had followed a peacock, then started asking about how he could get a koala and how much they cost.
She said the men “kind of made the fur on the back of my neck raised.”
Pat is an elderly koala and has several medical problems, including a potentially cancerous mass and an infected eye. Adding to the problems the stolen marsupials faced was the fact that they have a very specialized diet, eating only the freshest tips of eucalyptus buds. The plants are also their main source of water.
“People in the horticulture department here have to go out daily to get them food,” Chan said Wednesday. “That’s why you don’t see them in zoos in this country. They don’t drink water. If someone had them, they wouldn’t know they don’t drink.”
The koalas live in a building kept at a constant temperature of between 65 and 70 degrees. They have no body fat, which makes them highly vulnerable to environmental changes.
Robinett said the animals can survive fluctuations in temperature, but “the more stress they are under, the harder it is for them.”
Deborah Tabart, executive director of the Australian Koala Foundation, speculated the koalas might have been stolen to be sold to a collector.
She said the animals were potentially worth “tens of thousands” of dollars. Tabart said it was the first time she had heard of a koala being stolen from a zoo outside of Australia.
After Rumsey reported the two men, the facility’s 24-hour security unit was alerted. Robinett said he will evaluate the zoo’s security system and explore new methods of keeping animals safer.
“We have security around the clock, but it’s a big zoo and covering it every minute of the day during the day or night is a lot of work,” he said.
Robinett said zoo officials will basically leave the koalas alone and keep an eye on them after a vet checks them out.
“We want to let them settle back into their normal routine,” he said. “We’ll base our actions on how they respond.”
In September, a rare, brightly colored garter snake named Sarah was stolen from the zoo after two locks were pried open and the snake’s viewing glass was shattered. The snake was never returned.
Koalas, native to Australia, are considered threatened. Chan said only about a dozen zoos in the United States have exhibits.
Pat came to the zoo in 1986 from Australia and later gave birth to Leanne and another female, Janie. Leanne has since had three offspring.