Bradley Tomes, 25, of Moss Lane, Hesketh Bank, Preston, is starting a 32 month jail term after Preston Crown Court heard he twice broke into South Lakes Safari Zoo and cut into the side of the aviary to steal tropical and endangered birds, some of which escaped and were never seen again.
Tomes admitted stealing, transporting and selling 12 spoonbill birds on July 22, 2018 - he said eight later died.
He also admitted returning to the scene, on October 27, 2018, and stealing two penguins, which he sold for £9,000 and three macaws, which he sold for £500 each.
He was caught when an animal rescuer in Nottinghamshire bought the penguins in good faith and found they were stolen.
Prosecuting, Charles Brown said: "Some two years after he had left, on the night of July 22, the zoo was broken into.
"There was no damage to the outer perimeter but a hole was cut and a tropical bird aviary was entered through a padlocked door.
"That padlocked door was open without damage suggesting the perpetrator had had access to keys. The defendant had had keys while he had been working there.
"It was believed they'd been handed back but they could have been copied.
"12 Roseate spoonbills were missing, valued at £19,400. No trace of those birds has subsequently been found.
"Other exotic birds had escaped through the hole in the aviary fence.
"The defendant fell under suspicion because he had been seen in the zoo on the afternoon of July 22. He had been an infrequent visitor to the zoo since he had left. Usually he behaved in a friendly amiable manner to his former workmates but on this occasion he had been noted to behave in an unusual fashion, not appearing to want to be noticed.
"He was there with another man and further still he had, a little time earlier, asked a member of zoo staff whether or not he could purchase any of the zoo's spoonbills.
"The crown says this interest in spoonbills and subsequent visit on the day prior to the break in is clear evidence of planning, this is effects being a theft to order and his visit being a reconnaissance prior to the burglary.
"Police visited his home and found disused aviaries but nothing to link him. It was later discovered he used aviaries on his uncle's farm.
"The matters rested there until in October, between 27 and 28, there was a further entry into the zoo."
The court heard this time, three macaws and two Humbolt penguins from the Pacific Coast of Chile and Peru were discovered to have gone missing, but CCTV cameras installed since the last theft hadn't been triggered as the thief appeared to know the areas covered.
Mr Brown added: "In January 2019 the zoo and police received information from a wild animal collector in Nottingham that he had bought two penguins in good faith.
"The history of that transaction is he does keep wild animals on his farm and had been contacted on Facebook by the defendant, who was offering to sell him penguins.
"They discussed the paperwork and the defendant told Mr Reece he didn't require it. They agreed on a price of £9,000 but that Mr Reece would wait until proper paperwork was available.
"The defendant was keen to complete the transaction, he declined his offer to travel to the north with his vet to collect them, and delivered them himself to Nottingham on January 7."
Mr Reece noted that the penguins were not in good health and contacted his vet, who had also done work for the zoo.
Tomes then begged Mr Reece not to contact police and promised to return his money and collect the birds.
On January 16 Tomes returned to Mr Reece's property but was arrested.
ANPR and cell siting evidence showed he was in the vicinity of the zoo on the days in question.
His defence lawyer said from a young age he was a young boy devoted to the care of animals, was known for his ability to care for them.
He added: "In 2018 there were a variety of significant problems which combined to change his attitude and behaviour to things he had loved.
"He fell ill and was prescribed medication, he lost his grandmother, a relationship broke down and he turned to alcohol and drugs."
"He has now rebuilt his life, they were very dark times for him."
Judge Beverly Lunt said: "To commit this crime you used your knowledge of the zoo which was gained from you being a paid employee up to 2016.
"So you knew this group of spoonbills was the only one in the UK, you knew they were a family group and you destroyed that group. You knew the great harm you would cause the zoo...and of course you knew the harm you were causing to the remaining birds but you didn't care.
"You saw them as a commodity you could sell.
"Of the 12 you stole you let eight die so you caused even more suffering. This was a callous and cruel crime.
"Your excuse - the only one you can proffer - is you needed money for alcohol and drugs. But why would you steal 12 birds worth £20,000?
"No, this isn't a desperation borne of a drug addiction, this was greed that played a part here.
"You cared nothing for the welfare of these defenceless creatures."
This isn’t the first time Tomes’ obsession with rare animals has landed him in trouble.
Last July the unlicensed animal trader was banned for five years from keeping or trading animals, after animal welfare inspectors were met with grisly and upsetting scenes at a Tarleton farm and his home.
They found animal and bird carcasses, as well as other rare species kept in terrible conditions.
He got 20 weeks, suspended for a year, and 120 hours unpaid work.
Wendy Evans, of the CPS, said “Bradley Tomes showed utter disregard to the wellbeing of the birds he stole from his previous employer for his own financial gain. In an attempt to avoid being caught, he begged the buyer not to contact police and tried to return the money he had received for the penguins.
“In police interview he denied committing the offences, but once faced with the overwhelming evidence against him, he pleaded guilty. This included clear evidence of him planning the thefts to order. He told police he had not attended the zoo in 2018, but ANPR and an eye witnesses, who knew him, proved he made a reconnaissance trip to the zoo, as well as being present on the days of the burglaries.
"We take crimes involving endangered animals and birds incredibly seriously and will take every step we can to secure convictions in these cases.”
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