Newsletter: The curious case of the stolen lemur

"Maki," the ring-tailed lemur stolen from the San Francisco Zoo.
“Maki,” the ring-tailed lemur stolen from the San Francisco Zoo.
(San Francisco Zoo)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Oct. 16, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

With its surrounding pond and mature cypress and eucalyptus trees, the Lipman Family Lemur Forest at the San Francisco Zoo is typically a paradise for small primates.

But the largest outdoor habitat for lemurs in the country was the site of a police investigation on Wednesday morning, after Maki — a 21-year-old ring-tailed lemur — was discovered missing just before the zoo opened to visitors.

San Francisco police determined that the animal had been stolen after finding signs of forced entry. The enclosure housing the lemur had been “busted into,” according to Police Officer Robert Rueca.

Maki is one of the oldest of the 19 lemurs at the zoo, and that longevity may have made him a target. He is “one of the slowest, and we believe, likely, the easiest to catch,” Dr. Jason Watters, the zoo’s executive vice president of animal behavior and wellness, said in a statement.


“We understand that lemurs are adorable animals, but Maki is a highly endangered animal that requires special care,” Watters said. Lemurs look a little like a cross between a raccoon and a monkey, and are found in the wild only in the African island nation of Madagascar. The ring-tailed lemur has been on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list since 2014.

Barry Lipman, a former zoo board member who, along with his wife, helped provide support for the creation of the zoo’s lemur forest, received a text message from the zoo’s director on Wednesday morning informing him of Maki’s disappearance.

“Who would steal a lemur? Why would you do this?” the San Francisco investor and philanthropist remembered thinking as he read the text. “I mean, these things are not easy to take care of. You can’t really have a pet lemur.”

Lipman was correct on both counts. Lemurs are not easy to care for in a domestic setting, nor are they legal to keep as pets in California. But that hasn’t stopped some people from trying.

Crawford Allan, a wildlife crime expert at the World Wide Fund for Nature, told the San Francisco Chronicle that lemurs are a “highly desirable” target for wildlife trafficking. A 2019 Duke University study found that viral social media videos depicting lemurs as cute and cuddly might have a dark side, potentially fueling demand for them as pets.

Here in California, a ring-tailed lemur thought to have been part of the exotic pet trade was found wandering through a San Joaquin Valley backyard a few years ago.

And this isn’t the first time a lemur has been snatched from a California zoo. In 2018, authorities said an Orange County man stole a lemur from the Santa Ana Zoo under the cover of darkness, and then abandoned the lemur outside a Newport Beach hotel before the zookeepers had even noticed its disappearance.

At 21 years old, Maki has already well exceeded the 16.7-year median life expectancy of a typical lemur and requires a specialized diet because of his age.

“It would be nice if somebody could bring him back, that way he could live out his final days in calm and serenity,” Lipman said over the phone on Thursday afternoon.

Lipman’s wish soon came true, sort of.

On Thursday evening, a 5-year-old boy spotted what sure looked like a lemur outside his day care, about five miles south of the zoo in Daly City, according to an ABC 7 report. The boy’s family alerted authorities, and soon the Daly City Police, animal control officers and zoo staff were on the scene to safely capture the lemur.

Speaking by phone late Thursday night, San Francisco Police Officer Adam Lobsinger said that zoo officials had been able to confirm that the found lemur was, in fact, Maki.

A great deal of questions remain. The incident remains an open and active investigation, according to San Francisco police.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

The Trump administration has rejected California’s request for disaster relief funds aimed at cleaning up the damage from six recent fires across the state, including Los Angeles County’s Bobcat fire, San Bernardino County’s El Dorado fire, and the Creek fire, one of the largest that continues to burn in Fresno and Madera counties. Los Angeles Times

State teacher unions push back against calls to reopen campuses: As parents express widespread dissatisfaction with distance learning, two influential California teachers unions are emerging as a force to slow down the growing momentum to reopen schools in many communities, saying that campuses are not yet safe enough amid the ongoing pandemic. Los Angeles Times

One man’s eye “exploded,” another lost eight teeth from LAPD projectiles fired at Lakers revelers. The injuries Sunday add to a growing list of people hurt by LAPD hard-foam and other “less lethal” projectiles, as the LAPD calls them. Police say the weapons are an effective way to disperse crowds that have become violent. But some of the claims made by police about the weapons — that the rounds don’t “penetrate the skin” and that officers don’t aim at the head or other sensitive body parts — are coming under growing scrutiny after a series of incidents over the last few months, some caught on video. Los Angeles Times

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A civilian watchdog panel passed a resolution calling on L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign. Escalating its war of words with Villanueva, the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission unanimously approved a resolution condemning the sheriff’s leadership of his department and calling for his immediate resignation. Los Angeles Times

The Dodgers saw the tables turned against them in a stunning NLCS Game 4 blowout loss to the Braves: The Dodgers are now one loss away from being eliminated from the postseason. Los Angeles Times

Officials fear Halloween could become a super-spreader horror show, as L.A. County coronavirus infections rise. Los Angeles Times

Straight outta Pasadena: The unlikely high-school bromance of Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. Eddie Van Halen, son of blue-collar immigrants, went to Pasadena High. David Lee Roth, his dad a doctor, attended Muir. Their meeting remade rock. Los Angeles Times

Eddie Van Halen performing with Van Halen in 1975.
Eddie Van Halen performing with Van Halen in 1975.
(Kevin Estrada Archives)

Amid Biden speculation, Eric Garcetti says it’s “more likely than not” he’ll remain as L.A. mayor. The mayor did not provide a definitive answer when asked by The Times whether he’d like to join a Joe Biden Cabinet, should the Democratic candidate be elected president. Garcetti’s term ends in 2022. Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León took office two months early on Thursday, telling supporters in a prerecorded swearing-in video that the city’s homelessness crisis has devolved into a “dystopian nightmare.” Los Angeles Times

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How quickly will your absentee vote get counted? Here’s a state-by-state timeline. In California, ballots are pre-processed (which ranges from verifying signatures, opening envelopes and flattening ballots to get them ready for tabulation) before election day. New York Times

“California’s 40 million people are sick of being ignored.” An opinion columnist opines on how little say Californians have in national elections. New York Times

A third of San Francisco public schools could see their names changed as officials push to replace “inappropriate” ones honoring presidents, writers, generals and even Sen. Dianne Feinstein. San Francisco Chronicle


Courts are scrutinizing Scott Peterson’s murder convictions. What happens next? Los Angeles Times


Why is a Stanford doctor promoting herd immunity at the White House? Bay Area experts explain the controversy. San Francisco Chronicle


It’s been more than 200 days since Disneyland closed. For these superfans, it’s agony.Los Angeles Times

A retired Northern California teamster and his 10-year-old beagle plan to crisscross America by car in support of Democratic candidates. Steve MacDonald said his plan to hit battleground states in an American-flag festooned truck was an extension of his longtime union activism. Vacaville Reporter

Bakersfield conservatives leave for less liberal states: “Bakersfield real estate agents see it in the rising number of higher-end homes hitting the market lately and sellers leaving for states including Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Texas and Utah.” Bakersfield Californian

Someone has been taping “‘Official’ Republican ballot drop-box” signs to trash cans in a small East Bay town. “It’s unclear who is plastering the drop box signs... But the joke appears to be in direct reference to a statewide ballot box brouhaha that began unfolding earlier this week.” KTVU

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Los Angeles: sunny, 91. San Diego: sunny, 84. San Francisco: partly sunny, 87. San Jose: partly sunny, 93. Fresno: sunny, 91. Sacramento: sunny, 93. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Pela Tomasello:

I only went out trick-or-treating once when I was about 8 years old in 1947 or ‘48. I remember it clearly. A neighbor boy and I went together. I don’t remember if we went to any houses but we did go to Lick Pier near our house, which was like Disneyland for us. The man who ran the double ferris wheel knew us. There were not many people at the pier that night, and he let us ride for free. When we at the very top, he stopped the ferris wheel. The sight was incredible. You could see all of the lights for miles. It looked like the stars had fallen to the ground.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.