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GBR Press: Mystery tortoise crimewave

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Posted by: W von Papineu at Wed Jul 6 10:19:30 2011  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papineu ]  

DAILY MAIL (London, UK) 04 July 11 Who is running off with Britain's tortoises? Record numbers vanish in mystery crimewave (Vincent Graff)
John Hayward wears the authority of a man who’s spent more than three decades sweeping villains off the streets.
A former senior officer with the Thames Valley police, he talks with an earnest intensity, but without emotion — like a copper in the witness stand on the Seventies TV show Crown Court.
He has some important news to impart. There are, he says, some nasty thieves at large. They may well be organised gangs. And they need apprehending before they strike again.
Disappearing act: Tortoises are at risk, says former police officer John Hayward who set up the National Theft Register For Exotic Animals 16 years ago
He’s particularly concerned about a theft that happened in the early hours of the morning a fortnight ago in Sevenoaks, Kent.
‘There’s no doubt the victim was definitely targeted,’ he tells me.
He wants me to deliver a message to anyone who has been approached in a pub and has been foolish enough to buy any of the stolen goods.
‘If you’ve bought one of these tortoises, you want to come clean. Because if the police catch up with you, you can go to prison for five years.’
Did I hear correctly? Tortoises?
Yes — tortoises. While the nation’s MPs busy themselves with academic debates about prison tariff discounts and early release schemes, the country is in the grip of a tortoise crime epidemic. Tortoise theft is at an all-time high.
And no one seems to be doing anything about it. No one, that is, except former Detective Inspector John Hayward.
When he left the police 16 years ago, Hayward set up the National Theft Register For Exotic Animals. This makes him the nation’s foremost expert on stolen pets.
His message is stark: Britain’s tortoise population is in peril. The gentle reptiles, many of whom can live to the age of 100, are being snatched from back gardens in unprecedented numbers.
Last month, there were 36 suspected tortoise thefts — more than the total number of tortoises snatched in the whole of 2010 or any of the five years before.
The latest owner to fall victim is 42-year-old Lisa McIntyre. Until a few days ago, the mother of two shared her life with her husband, teenage daughters, two dogs, a parrot that can sing Show Me The Way To Go Home and 14 tortoises.
Now every one of those 14 tortoises has disappeared.
Walking around the heated greenhouse in her back garden, the pain in her voice is still apparent.
‘It was Saturday morning, about 10.15am. I came down to feed them. As soon as I walked in I could see carrier bags all over the floor, so I knew something had happened. They were gone. Every single tortoise. They didn’t miss one.’
She screamed for her neighbour, rang her husband and then called the police. Within a couple of hours, a forensic investigator from the Kent constabulary was dusting for fingerprints and taking pictures of the big black footprints the thieves left on her garden wall.
Then a friend of Lisa’s set up a group on networking site Facebook. Within a few days, more than 400 tortoise lovers were spreading the word about the disappearance, checking ‘tortoise for sale’ small ads and offering much-needed comfort to poor Lisa.
A promising start, you might think. So how is the investigation going so far? Nothing. No news. No leads. No sign of Bluebell, Clover, Jazz, Tank, Tigger, Piglet, Roo, Toby, Molly, Poppy, Muffin, Sadie, Pumpkin or Daisy.
She misses them all, more than she can say.
‘I know a tortoise can’t run up to cuddle you,’ says Lisa. ‘They’re prehistoric. They’re living dinosaurs. But each has its own personality.’
So, who’s pinched them? It’s unlikely to be an opportunist thief, says Lisa, because the contents of their shed — including electrical equipment — were left untouched.
‘An awful lot of these animals are becoming rare, so people look at tortoises and see pound signs,’ says John Hayward.
‘They see a little tortoise hatchling being sold legally at a pet shop for £100 or £120 and realise that something the size of a dinner plate is worth many times that amount.’
So how much was Lisa’s collection of tortoises worth?
Ten of the tortoises were Horsfield’s, a fairly common breed that might sell for £100 each, says Hayward.
But four of the stolen pets were spur-thighed tortoises. These are an endangered species — an example of the type of tortoises that could land someone a five-year jail sentence if they buy one in a dodgy pub.
The spur-thighed tortoises, a dark brown beast with trademark large scales, can be worth several hundred pounds.
‘A rare, endangered species could run into thousands of pounds,’ says Hayward. ‘A breeding pair are worth real money, because every time there are hatchlings you’ve got something to sell.’
So who does he think has taken them? Hayward mulls the options.
‘This has been the quietest response we’ve had to any major tortoise theft. I can only assume they’ve been stolen to order to go to one person who wants to put them into a breeding programme or to boost a collection.’
They have searched local pet shops, car boot sales and asked the RSPCA for help, to no avail.
‘We need someone to come forward and offer a reward for their return,’ says Lisa. ‘A wealthy tortoise lover maybe. ‘A family friend asked Jeremy Clarkson to put up some money. He’s got a tortoise himself. But I don’t think he’s answered.’
There seems to have been a similar silence from other celebrities — Paul O’Grady, David Walliams and Stephen Fry — who were asked to spread the message.
I call another owner, Helen Smith, from East Yorkshire. She owns 26 tortoises, aged from three to an estimated 66.
Two YEARS ago, Clyde, a 16-year-old Horsfield’s, was snatched from her greenhouse.
‘He was special,’ she says. ‘If I went into the greenhouse he would run at me with his mouth open, as if he was going to bite.
‘But he’d always stop and look at me as if to say: “Where’s my food?” He was so gorgeous.’
Her advice: security, CCTV, big lights, heavy locks.
It was too late for Clyde, who never returned. Will it be the same story for Clover, Molly, Pumpkin and co?
As I leave, I ask Lisa if she’ll replace the missing animals and start to rebuild her tortoise collection from scratch.
‘I don’t think I could start again,’ she says. ‘They were irreplaceable to me and I feel as if 20 years of my life have just disappeared.’
Who is running off with Britain's tortoises?


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