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A lemur was kidnapped from a zoo, authorities say. A 5-year-old helped crack the case.

Maki, a ring-tailed lemur, was returned to the San Francisco Zoo two days after he disappeared. (Marianne Hale/San Francisco Zoo)

The preschool director wasn’t sure what to make of the furry visitor scurrying around the playground of Hope Lutheran Day School in the San Francisco Bay area one afternoon last fall. Was it a raccoon? A skunk?

For 5-year-old James Trinh, there was no such uncertainty.

“There’s a lemur!” the preschooler exclaimed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “There’s a lemur!”

The Oct. 15 discovery marked the end of a frantic search for the missing endangered primate, which had been kidnapped from his enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo two days earlier. Maki, an arthritic, 21-year-old ring-tailed lemur, was returned to his lifelong home, where zoo spokeswoman Nancy Chan says he has since gotten “back to being his normal lemur self.”

Maki, a 21-year-old ring-tailed lemur, was returned to the San Francisco Zoo on Oct. 15, 2020 after being kidnapped two days earlier. (Video: San Francisco Zoo)

The man suspected of snatching the animal from the Lipman Family Madagascar Center is facing federal charges of violating the Endangered Species Act. Prosecutors said Monday that Cory John McGilloway could spend up to a year behind bars if convicted of the misdemeanor offense, ABC News reported.

Public defender Elisse Larouche, who represents the 31-year-old Los Angeles man, declined to comment on the case.

According to an FBI arrest affidavit, McGilloway is alleged to have entered the zoo just before 8 p.m. on Oct. 13. The slow-moving Maki was taken from the exhibit the animal shares with other ring-tailed lemurs, a species that is native only to Madagascar and has experienced years of steady population decline.

A zoo horticulturist discovered the break-in the next morning. Officials called police to report the disappearance of the creature and pleaded with the public to help bring him home. They offered a $2,100 reward.

“We understand that lemurs are adorable animals,” Jason Watters, the zoo’s executive vice president for animal behavior and wellness, told ABC 7 at the time, “but Maki is a highly endangered animal that requires special care.”

The first sign of him came hours later. A woman contacted the San Francisco Police Department on Oct. 15 to report having seen a man walking a lemur on a leash. She had taken a video of the unusual sight and watched as the man led the animal to a maroon car.

During his brief time with Maki, McGilloway apparently turned to Google for veterinary tips. According to court records, police discovered searches including “foods to feed lemurs,” “lemurs eat chocolate,” “veterinary care for lemurs,” “names for monkey” and “what is required to own a lemur.”

He also Googled, “how much is it to buy a lemur” — a query prosecutors took to suggest he was pondering the price Maki could fetch. Private ownership of a lemur is illegal in California.

At some point, under circumstances that are unclear, man and lemur separated and Maki turned up at the Hope Lutheran Day School playground in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. It was about 5 p.m. on Oct. 15 when the preschoolers spotted him.

“We’ve had coyotes, skunks, raccoons,” school Director Cynthia Huang told the Chronicle. “I thought, ‘Are you sure it’s not a raccoon?’ ”

Five-year-old James was sure. Asked later what the lemur looked like, he told a television reporter, “A lemur! Gray, black and white.” He added, “I like the way they look.”

The school called police, and as a group of preschoolers watched, authorities eased Maki out of the plastic house where he was hiding and into a carrier. Soon, he was back at the zoo, where officials said he was agitated, dehydrated and hungry but otherwise okay.

McGilloway was arrested the same day. Just before midnight, court documents say, police in San Rafael got reports of a stolen dump truck. Police said they found McGilloway driving it and arrested him. Inside his car, a maroon Saab, was a stainless steel bowl later confirmed as belonging to the zoo, authorities say.

On his phone were pictures of Maki sitting on his lap and behind the wheel of the car, according to court documents. And DNA allegedly links McGilloway to the leash and the scene at the zoo.

During a news conference in October, zoo Director Tanya Peterson said she was grateful for the return of the lemur.

“I thank everybody for their involvement. It was perfect ending,” she said. “And I guess I need to also thank the perpetrator for doing the right thing in the end.”

James got a special thank you. San Francisco Mayor London Breed presented him a certificate of honor. And Peterson gave him a Maki stuffed animal — along with a lifelong membership to the zoo.

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