Stolen San Francisco Koalas Found

S A N   F R A N C I S C O, Dec. 28, 2000 -- Two rare koalas described as “the cutest things you have ever seen” and stolen from the San Francisco Zoo have been found unharmed.

Leanne, 7, and her mother, Pat, 15, were found in a house in south San Francisco, running around a hallway scattered with koala droppings. Police said they went to the house after receiving an anonymous tip from a woman at about 1 a.m. today.

“We’re extremely happy and relieved that the koalas are back,” zoo Deputy Director John Mann said.

Police said they had no problems getting into the home. When they got to the door, officers said they could see the koalas playing in the hall.

“The officers were able to see the missing koalas, and they convinced the residents [of] the urgency and the welfare of the koalas. They were able to convince them to let them [come] in and rescue the koalas,” said Inspector Lou Bronfeld of the San Francisco Police Department.

The koalas are being examined by veterinarians, but seem healthy and happy, zoo officials said.

Teens Arrested

Authorities arrested two teen-agers tonight, accusing them of stealing the pair of koalas from the San Francisco Zoo to show off to their girlfriends.

“They wanted to give them to their lady friends to impress them,” police spokesman Jim Deignan said.

Police said the teens are charged with burglary, possession of stolen property and grand theft. They said profit was not the motive, despite each animals’ estimated value of more than $10,000.

Neither teen-ager was immediately identified.

Police said the koalas were apparently stolen after someone broke through a skylight and climbed into the animals’ indoor quarters through a furnace door late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.

High-Maintenance Animals

Officials had feared for the survival of the koalas, who are very high-maintenance animals, said the zoo’s general curator, David Robinett.

Pat has several medical problems, including a potentially cancerous mass and an infected eye.

Even feeding them is difficult. They eat a very specialized diet of only the most tender eucalyptus leaves, the buds of which provide the koalas with their main source of water. They require 2 ½ pounds per day — an amount tracked carefully by zookeepers.

And this time of year, those leaves can be hard to come by, even for a zoo. For the koala-nappers, the amount needed to feed Leanne and Pat would have been nearly impossible to find.

“People in the horticulture department here have to go out daily to get them food,” said zoo spokeswoman Nancy Chan. “That’s why you don’t see them in zoos in this country.”

The zoo’s seven koalas live in a building with a temperature kept constantly between 65 and 70 degrees. They have no body fat, which makes them highly vulnerable to any changes in their environment.

Zookeepers say even stress could kill the small, bear-like animals.

No Known Market for Koalas

Chan said that while in the past certain rare reptiles have been the target of animal traffickers, there was no known market for koalas, leaving officials mystified as to the motive for the apparent theft.

“The only way to describe them is really they are the cutest things you have ever seen,” Chan said. “It could be that they want to sell them, or they might want to have them as pets. But why they would want to have them as pets is beyond us because they are so difficult to take care of.”

Other, more grisly scenarios, including the possibility that someone might have taken the koalas intending to eat them, were not out of the question, Chan said.

“We don’t even want to think about that, [but] that has come up in our conversations,” Chan said. “Would someone want to eat a koala? Why would anyone want to do that? We don’t know.”

Once hunted nearly to extinction for its thick fur, the koala now lives in eucalyptus forests in eastern Australia, where it is protected by strict law.

ABCNEWS affiliate KGO in San Francisco and ABCNEWS’ Mary Ellen Geist contributed to this report.