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Yes, a man is facing federal charges for stealing a lemur from a zoo

A man faces misdemeanor charges for stealing an endangered lemur from a zoo in October and violating the Endangered Species Act.
Credit: AP
Ring-tailed lemurs sit on the hood of a truck while snacking inside the Buin Zoo in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. None of these lemurs have been kidnapped. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

The San Francisco Zoo posted a photo of its oldest lemur, Maki, to Twitter this week. The replies were filled with concerns for his safety and elation for his return to the zoo. 

What Maki has returned from, according to news stories spread through social media, is an October kidnapping. Those same news stories also reported the person suspected of the lemur’s theft is now facing federal charges. That reporting has come with a fair number of questions: Is this real? Is the lemur okay? Why would someone steal a lemur? Why didn’t the zoo have security cameras?

THE QUESTION

Is a man facing federal charges for stealing a lemur from a zoo and violating the Endangered Species Act? 

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes. Federal prosecutors charged Cory McGilloway with a misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act on June 21, 2021. He’s accused of stealing an endangered lemur from the San Francisco Zoo in October.

The lemur was found at a local church a couple days after it went missing in October, but officials suspected McGilloway of the theft after they found photos of the lemur with him on his phone when they arrested him for an unrelated crime.

WHAT WE FOUND

If convicted, Cory McGilloway could face up to a year in prison and $50,000 in fines for a misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act, which “makes it a crime to ‘take’ any protected species within the United States,” according to court documents.

The saga of the kidnapped lemur began on Oct. 14, 2020, when the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco Zoo announced a ring-tailed lemur named Maki had been stolen overnight from the zoo. The press release from the police noted officers “discovered forced entry to the animal enclosure where the lemur was housed.”

Court documents, released later, included a screenshot from a zoo security camera showing a person believed to be McGilloway entering the zoo at night after closing.

The nearby Daly City Police Department reported Maki was found at a local church on Oct. 15. Police contained him at the church until zoo staff picked him up. The zoo reported he was a tad anxious and hungry, but appeared to be in good health.

By Oct. 16, the San Francisco PD reported suspect Cory McGilloway had been arrested following his arrest for an unrelated matter by a separate police department. The SFPD said he would be booked on charges of burglary, grand theft of an animal, looting and vandalism.

But none of those charges were what brought him to federal court. The reason he’s there is because of the specific animal he’s accused of taking from the zoo.

Court documents show that the federal government sought a warrant for his arrest for misdemeanor violations of the Endangered Species Act. The act prohibits anyone from “taking” a species protected by the act. The act includes trapping or capturing such an animal as taking it in this case.

Ring-tailed lemurs like Maki are classified by the IUCN Red List as an endangered species and thus protected by this law. In fact, the Duke Lemur Center says “lemurs are the most endangered group of mammals on Earth.”

Court documents say authorities suspected McGilloway of the theft after they searched his phone to find a “video of the lemur drinking out of a bowl on the floorboard of a maroon” car and “photographs of a lemur on his lap.” The documents add that SFPD later found photographs on his phone that “show the lemur sitting on the vehicle’s steering wheel” taken a few hours after the time he is accused of stealing the lemur. The photo of Maki at the steering wheel is included in the court documents.

The court documents also say police found Google searches regarding lemur prices and care on McGilloway’s phone. Prosecutors say his searches included “how much it is to buy a lemur,” “how much is a lemur,” “foods to feed lemurs,” “lemurs eat chocolate,” “veterinary care for lemurs,” “names for monkey,” and “what is required to own a lemur.”

A photo included in the court documents is claimed to be of McGilloway taking Maki on a walk. Wildlife charity Born Free USA says private ownership of primates such as lemurs is illegal in California.

Both the Duke Lemur Center and the Lemur Conservation Foundation warn people not to keep lemurs as pets. The Lemur Conservation Foundation says illegal trafficking of wild animals, including lemurs, is a “multibillion-dollar industry” and is promoted by demand for the animals from people who want to keep them as pets. Some of the many other reasons it says you shouldn’t keep lemurs is because they need other lemurs to develop properly, they cannot be tamed and they can spread diseases to humans. 

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