By TREVOR MARSHALLSEA, Associated Press
SYDNEY (AP) — It wasn't grand theft. It was tiny.
But the snatching of a baby meerkat from a zoo has not only become a major story in the Australian city of Perth, it has led to the arrest of three people.
In September, Perth Zoo was ready to publicly show off its new month-old meerkitten to the public and media, but a day before its planned debut, it was gone.
Worried zoo staff said the male baby, who hadn't yet been named, had apparently got out of its nest box, and feared it may have been snatched by a bird of prey.
But the other possible reason for its disappearance — theft — was also explored.
Police were called to investigate, and two days later they found the missing meerkat — at a house 130 kilometers (80 miles) away, in the town of Beverley.
Police charged two people who had visited the zoo over the furry heist. Jesse Ray Hooker, 23, was charged with stealing, while his friend Aimee Cummins, also 23, with receiving stolen goods.
On Wednesday police charged a third person, a 31-year-old woman, also from Beverley, with possessing stolen property.
Hooker appeared in Perth Magistrates Court, also on Wednesday, where defense lawyer Chad Silver said that he "fell in love" with the newborn meerkat as it ran toward him in its enclosure and had scooped it up and put it in his cooler bag.
He had then played loud music on the drive home to Beverley so that Cummins, unaware of the heist at the time, couldn't hear the animal's distressed cries. After a stop at McDonald's, the pair took the meerkitten home, adding it to a menagerie of four dogs and a cat.
Silver told the court Hooker was in the process of returning the meerkat when the police called. In the tiny town of Beverley, population 1,700, even a secret that small was apparently too hard to keep.
"The simplicity of the offence meant the police were able to capture and follow up the meerkat very quickly," Silver told the court.
In front of a large media contingent, Hooker pleaded guilty and was fined $2,800. Cummins would have faced her verdict, but Silver said she could not attend the hearing, citing medical reasons and intense media pressure.
She'll appear in person in January. The 31-year-old woman will face court next month.
As for the meerkitten, despite fears from zoo staff his mob would reject him, he's been welcomed back into the fold and given a name from the East African language of Kiswahili: Salama, which means "safe."
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