Illinois hunting and fishing

A pair of spotted turtles are home in their aquarium display at the Peoria Zoo after being taken Sunday by four juveniles. Zoo authorities caught the youth trying to take a rabbit Monday, leading to the confession and return of the turtles. Photo by Fred Zwicky.

Two stolen turtles are returned safely to Peoria Zoo

August 02, 2012 at 09:11 AM

PEORIA — Talk about an endangered species.

Two spotted turtles, listed as endangered in Illinois because of a diminishing habitat, were swiped by juveniles from an open aquarium at the Peoria Zoo earlier this week, and were further endangered by being unceremoniously dumped in a friend’s backyard. The aquatic turtles spent the night on unfamiliar dry land, but survived.

“They were a little dried out,” said Yvonne Strode, the director of the zoo, after the turtles were reunited with their keepers, “but they seem to be fine.”

The four juveniles - all between the ages of 10 and 12 - might have gotten away with the turtle theft if they hadn’t returned to the zoo the next day to try to steal a rabbit and maybe a mouse. The spotted turtles - two of four that live in a 125-gallon tank in the Conservation Center building inside the zoo - were taken from an unsecured aquarium sometime Sunday. They weren’t discovered missing until sometime Monday.

It appears the juveniles needed a chair or step-stool to be able to reach into the tall aquarium where the turtles live in about 10-inches of water with rocks and plants. It is not known how the turtles were transported from the zoo. The thieves were at least smart enough to not reach into a neighboring tank labeled “Blue Poison Arrow Frog.”

The alleged turtle thieves returned to the zoo Monday, and by this time zoo officials were aware of the missing spotted turtles. Park police were called when the four ran from zoo workers when confronted about being in a restricted part of the zoo.

Park Police Chief Sylvester Bush said the children had been milling about the zoo for a while and a staffer there allowed the boys into the facility despite the children not having enough money to pay the entrance fee. Bush said none of the children were at the zoo on a field trip or with their parents.

“The zoo staff noticed something suspicious and called us,” Bush said. “Basically, you are hanging around the park a couple of hours, then we’ll try to see if we can contact your parents to take you home.”

While he was questioning the children, the officer noticed a rabbit in a backpack one of the boy’s had on, which led to the admission about the turtles. On the drive with the police to talk to the boys’ parents about the theft, they showed where they dumped the turtles the day before. The police found the two turtles in the yard.

“We were thrilled to get them back alive and healthy,” Strode said. “We even observed some breeding behavior.”

A mouse in a barn exhibit turned up missing on Sunday, too. But the missing mouse has not been found, and the boys denied taking it, according to Strode.

The zoo has taken measures to secure the tanks in the Conservation Center. Bush said he plans to meet with zoo staff to consider possible security measures such as searching bags. Any change in policy, however, would have to be approved by the board.

Strode said she couldn’t remember a single incident of a visitor trying to steal a zoo animal in more than 12 years.

“This was a first,” she said.

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him on Twitter @scotthilyard. Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him on Twitter @andykravtez.