A man who admitted stealing a baby meerkat from its Perth Zoo enclosure, smuggling it out in a cooler bag and playing loud music to muffle the animal’s sounds of distress, has been fined $4000.
Jesse Ray Hooker, 23, pleaded guilty in the Perth Magistrate’s Court to stealing the four-week-old meerkitten from the zoo on September 19.
Prosecutors told the court Hooker had spent two hours at the zoo with his friend Aimee Cummins – who is charged with receiving – before jumping the meerkat enclosure and taking the infant, named Salama.
Hooker placed the meerkitten into his personal cooler bag and played loud music to muffle the sounds of distress it was making. He took it to McDonald’s in South Perth before travelling to Beverley in the Wheatbelt.
It was kept at a house with four dogs and one cat – with Hooker ignoring pleas for the meerkitten’s return in the media – until two days later when police searched the property.
He made admissions to police, saying he 'thought it would be cool as a pet'. It was initially reported the baby meerkat was worth more than $21,000, but the court was told that sum was the cost of keeping the animal for a year.
While prosecutors said Hooker jumped the enclosure’s fence, the thief’s lawyer Chad Silver said he bent over the hip-height fence and 'scooped' it up.
'(He thought) it was very cute indeed,' he said. 'He fell in love with it.' Mr Silver said the decision to steal the meerkitten was 'stupid'.
Keepers feared Salama would be rejected by his meerkat clan but the animal was successfully reintegrated with his family.
Mr Silver added he played loud music to keep the stolen animal a secret from Ms Cummins, who was due in court today but was excused for medical reasons.
Hooker was remorseful, had written a letter of apology to the zoo and had offered to do community work with them, Mr Silver said.
Prosecutors called for a suspended jail term, saying the theft involved a level of 'intent and deceit' and Hooker 'actively' hid the animal despite the zoo broadcasting there was a risk to its life.
Magistrate Brian Gluestein described the crime as 'very deliberate' and was committed with 'very little regard to the welfare'.
'I can say with general knowledge (a meerkat) is an animal that is well-regarded and well-liked by people who go to the zoo,' he said.
'At the time, it was a significant loss to the community and the zoo.'
Mr Gluestein, who took Hooker’s limited criminal record and early plea of guilty into account in sentencing, refused Hooker’s application for a spent conviction.
Outside court, Mr Silver said his client was 'very remorseful' for his behaviour. 'If you go to the zoo, you’ll see how cute they are and you’ll see the attraction,' he said.
Mr Silver said he could not answer how the meerkat was cared for while it was in his client’s possession.
The court was told the maximum penalty for the offence was $24,000 or two years jail.
Ms Cummins, who has not pleaded to her receiving charge, will appear in January. A third woman, 31, has recently been charged with possession of stolen property and will appear in court next month.
Perth Zoo’s executive director Wendy Attenborough would not comment on the court proceedings but confirmed the zoo had received Mr Hooker’s apology and gave an update on the meerkat family.
In a statement, Ms Attenborough said: 'While the Zoo team appreciates Mr Hooker’s apology we will not be taking up his offer to do community work at Perth Zoo.
'Volunteers at Perth Zoo are in highly valued and trusted roles. Through the Perth Zoo Docent Association more than 300 volunteers help us improve the visitor experience at the Zoo.
'Our meerkat kit, Salama, is doing well with the rest of the meerkat mob. He is growing fast and currently weighs around 500 grams.
'While the group are settling back into their regular routine in their African Savannah exhibit we are continuing to keep a close watch on them.'
Originally published on Perth Now and reproduced with permission.