When the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion opened to visitors last year, it was filled with exotic creepy crawlies: fireleg tarantulas, rainforest mantises, two-spotted assassin bugs and many more. But last week, around 7,000 of these creatures—between 80 and 90 percent of the museum’s holdings—disappeared.
As Sandra E. Garcia reports for the New York Times, police believe that three current or former employees stealthily swiped insects, arachnids and lizards from the museum, possibly with the intent to resell them. Surveillance footage shows the suspects leaving the museum with critters in plastic containers. The thieves also left an unsettling message behind: two bright blue staff uniforms, stabbed into the wall with knives.
John Cambridge, the CEO of the insectarium, told Rhett Jones of Gizmodo that he believes the thefts began last Tuesday and continued throughout the week. Staff didn’t immediately realize that something was wrong. “We’re continuously moving creatures around and, you know, taking them for educational programs all over the place,” Cambridge explained. “It’s not uncommon for a creature to be taken out of its tank and into the back room.”
When staff checked the back room, however, the missing animals weren’t there either. Cambridge told Jones that as much as $50,000 worth of creatures may have been stolen, but it’s difficult to nail down a precise figure because some of the specimens were very rare. “How do you characterize the value of a creature that you cannot get again?” he asked, according to Jones.
No arrests have been made yet, but the suspects may have unwittingly committed an even graver crime than theft. The museum often cares for specimens involved in smuggling and health violation cases, and some of the stolen specimens were connected to at least one federal trial. The suspects, in other words, may also face charges of tampering with federal evidence.
Police are searching the homes of the three alleged thieves, and have returned a few animals that were found at the property of one suspect. But many are still missing; as Cambridge points out in an interview with Garcia of the Times, these little creatures “are extremely easy to hide.”
The museum has set up a GoFundMe page to help it recoup some of the losses incurred by the theft. But the insectarium’s staff would much prefer it if the stolen animals were simply returned.
“These animals are ours,” staff member Trisha Nichols tells the local Fox29. “They are like part of the family you know?”