Police have recovered one of six small squirrel monkeys that were stolen about two weeks ago from the Hai Park zoo in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin, but are seeking the public's assistance in recovering the others.
The monkeys' absence at the park was initially noticed by a group of volunteers with Down syndrome who work at the zoo.
"One of the monkeys at the zoo wasn't feeling well. When we examined him, we discovered that he had been drugged using Bamba," zoo director Igal Fadida said, refering to the peanut-flavored snack. "These monkeys love Bamba, and it's easy to tempt them with it. Whoever stole [the monkeys] understands animals. This was not a common thief who suddenly decided he wanted to steal. He came in, sedated them, [and left with them]."
Inspectors from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority recovered one of the stolen monkeys at a Bnei Brak home, but the whereabouts of the others remain unknown.
Four squirrel monkeys were initially introduced to the park in Kiryat Motzkin eight years ago. That initial group grew to a collection of 18 monkeys.
The average squirrel monkey weighs about 1.5 kilograms, making them easy to remove from the zoo, staff said.
"The monkeys relate well to the visitors at the zoo," said one employee, Oren Goldman. "They approach people and you can touch them and feed them and the monkeys sometimes even jump and stand on visitors' shoulders."
The group of 24 volunteers with Down syndrome do maintenance work and feed and pet the animals. The volunteers are particularly attached to the monkeys and have repeatedly asked when they are coming back, Fadida said.
The investigation into the theft from the Kiryat Motzkin zoo is being conducted jointly by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the police. It is suspected that the monkeys were stolen to be sold to amusement or entertainment establishments.
Squirrel monkeys originate in Central and South America and live mainly in the rain forest. They have an average life expectancy of about 20 years and are in danger of extinction in the wild. Israeli law prohibits them being kept as house pets.
The monkeys stolen from the Kiryat Motzkin park have an identification chip embedded under their fur. Last week a pair of rare marmoset monkeys were stolen from Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo.