The Dead Zoo Gang


Illustration by Danijel Zezelj


Late on the morning of April 5, 2011, three men walked into the science building on the campus of the University of Coimbra in central Portugal. When a young biologist who worked in the building arrived, around 10:30, she found the men waiting outside a locked door on the second floor, sitting on a pair of couches next to a stuffed ostrich. The oldest of the three looked to be in his mid-forties and was overweight, with red hair and ruddy cheeks. For a half-hour or so, he had been asking anyone who walked past about seeing the small natural-history collection behind the door. He had an Irish accent, and there was something strange about his persistence. “He kept talking about ‘trophies,’” Pedro Casaleiro, the museum’s deputy director, told me. “He said they wanted to see ‘the trophies.’”

The University of Coimbra, which was established in Lisbon in 1290 and moved to its current location in the 16th century, is Portugal’s oldest university, and one of the oldest in the world. Its science department, housed in a stately neoclassical building on a hilltop with a commanding view of Coimbra’s terra-cotta-tiled skyline, is of comparatively recent vintage, dating to 1772, when the university hired an Italian scholar named Domenico Vandelli to begin building Coimbra’s science faculty.

Vandelli was a celebrated naturalist, a contemporary and regular correspondent of Carl Linnaeus, who named a genus of plants after him. He was also an ambitious collector, and over his career he built an impressive personal museum in Padua, the kind of wunderkammer that was popular among aristocrats and intellectuals of the era. There were stones from Roman ruins, coins from distant countries, and a 17th-century German automaton, a wind-up centaur fashioned out of silver that hurled arrows. There were also dozens of pieces of taxidermy from the far corners of the world. After Vandelli settled in Coimbra, the university persuaded him to bring his museum along, too. The taxidermy collection—augmented in the next century with specimens brought back from Portugal’s colonies—now occupies an L-shaped wing of the second floor of the science building, at the top of a large limestone staircase.

The natural-history collection was open to the public by appointment only, and the three visitors didn’t have one; they had already been turned away by the receptionist at the university’s main science museum across the street. But the biologist was feeling charitable, and she offered to show them around anyway. She unlocked the door and led them from one darkened room to the next, running ahead to find the light switches. The older man stayed close by her, following her into the darkness in a way that unnerved her. The other two lagged behind, taking pictures with their mobile phones.

After several minutes, they reached the room that contained the bulk of Vandelli’s collection. With its tiled floor, heavy red curtains, and exacting woodwork, the space exuded the slightly stuffy warmth of an earlier century. Its only nods to the present were some subtle light fixtures and, tucked unobtrusively in a corner against the high ceiling, a security camera. Against one wall stood a human skeleton and a peacock in full plumage. Next to them was a lion stuffed by a taxidermist with an uncertain grasp of anatomy, the beast’s face curiously broad and flat, with a hint of a smile, like a person wearing a lion mask. Along the opposite wall, a bank of wood-and-glass cabinets contained an array of tropical birds, small primates, and jungle-dwelling rodents. Standing guard at either door were a pair of stuffed manatees whose oiled hides had aged into something resembling obsidian.

As the tour concluded, the ruddy-faced man—the only one of the visitors who ever spoke—asked the biologist an odd question: Did the university ever loan out pieces of its taxidermy collection for the weekend? She demurred, but he seemed appreciative anyway; he told her they’d enjoyed themselves and would bring their families for a visit later that month.

Sixteen days later, another university employee was walking through the room that housed Vandelli’s collection when she felt that something was not quite right. Upon closer inspection, she noticed that one of the cabinet doors was slightly ajar. Inside, everything appeared to be in its proper place, with one exception: A pair of rhinoceros horns was missing.

“They didn’t damage anything,” Casaleiro told me, pointing to the cabinet where the horns had been. “They didn’t even break the glass.” It was a Tuesday afternoon in November 2013, and Casaleiro—a trim man in his forties, with dark brown hair graying at the temples and the bearing of an earnest graduate student—had agreed to show me the scene of the theft. After the horns were reported missing, he told me, the first thing he did was check the security video. “We had cameras in every room,” he said. Reviewing the footage from around 5 p.m. the previous Tuesday, he saw them: two figures entering through the western end of the wing.

They moved quickly toward the room that held most of Vandelli’s collection, walked to the cabinet containing the two rhino horns, and carefully pried the door open. One of the men removed the horns and began zipping them up inside a backpack. When the backpack proved too small, they took off their jackets and rolled the horns up inside them, then tucked the bundles under their arms and left, strolling out of the building into the late-afternoon sunlight.

Beyond that, the video revealed little. The images were curdled and blotty, captured in black and white through infrared cameras in dark rooms. “The thieves wore caps like this,” Casaleiro said, miming pulling a brim down low over his eyes, “so we couldn’t see their faces.” But when the Judicial Police—the law-enforcement authority that investigates serious crimes in Portugal—reviewed the footage, they discovered that the thieves, while careful in concealing their faces, had made a mistake. During the break-in, one of them had pulled out a mobile phone.

Combing through the traffic from that afternoon relayed by nearby cellular towers, the investigators were able to pinpoint a single call made from inside the museum. The receiving number’s country code was 353, and its area code was 086—an Irish mobile phone. Its owner was a resident of a small town called Rathkeale.

This is a preview of

The Dead Zoo Gang

by Charles Homans from The Atavist

The world had never seen a crime wave quite like it. Starting in early 2011, thieves descended upon dozens of natural-history museums across Europe armed with crowbars, sledgehammers, and tear-gas grenades, interested in only one thing: antique rhinoceros horns. By 2013, they had stolen nearly a hundred horns in all, worth millions of dollars on the international black market. The only thing more unusual than the crimes themselves was the law enforcement’s theory about who was responsible: a handful of families from rural Ireland known as the Rathkeale Rovers.

Charles Homans spent six months investigating the thefts, from a museum in Portugal to a courthouse in New York to a village in Ireland’s County Limerick. The Dead Zoo Gang is a globe-trotting saga of brazen heists, careening car chases, and shoe-leather detective work, a true-crime story for an era of cultural collision and environmental catastrophe.

March 2014