It was a case worthy of Ace Ventura, the pet detective.
Nearly a year after an endangered ring-tailed lemur named Isaac was abducted from a Southern California zoo and then abandoned in front of a nearby hotel with a note for the police, his captor was brought to justice, the authorities said this week.
Aquinas Kasbar, 19, pleaded guilty in federal court on Monday to breaking into the Santa Ana Zoo and removing the primate from his enclosure on July 27, 2018, prosecutors said. Mr. Kasbar had planned to keep the animal as a pet, they added.
Mr. Kasbar of Newport Beach faces up to a year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine for taking an endangered species, a federal offense. The sentencing of Mr. Kasbar, who remains in custody, is scheduled for Oct. 28.
Isaac turned 33 on Wednesday, making him the oldest ring-tailed lemur in captivity in North America, according to the zoo. There are about 90 different species of lemurs, all of which are native to Madagascar.
“We’re happy to have Isaac back unharmed,” Ethan Fisher, the zoo’s director, said on Thursday. “Hopefully, this can be a learning experience for other people who might consider something of this nature.”
Brian Gurwitz, a lawyer for Mr. Kasbar, said his client, who was in high school at the time of the episode, was remorseful. “It was obviously terrible judgment, like youth often exercise,” Mr. Gurwitz said. “It was a terribly impulsive decision that he’s accepted responsibility for.”
Mr. Kasbar was already known to investigators for being charged in a string of home burglaries in Orange County; the loot included diamonds, a Rolex watch and other expensive jewelry. He pleaded not guilty in those cases. During the investigation of the burglaries, the authorities found a video on Mr. Kasbar’s cellphone that showed him playing with the lemur, his lawyer said.
Prosecutors said Mr. Kasbar put Isaac inside a plastic storage bin with no ventilation holes during the abduction from the zoo, which has been the lemur’s home since 2000.
Wildlife handlers warn that lemurs are not suitable as domesticated animals and that those bred as pets can be highly unpredictable, posing a danger to themselves and their owners. At the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, researchers estimate it costs about $8,000 a year to care for an individual lemur. The costs can add up over the lifetime of a ring-tailed lemur, which can live about 30 years, according to the center.
“Typically pet lemurs develop aggressive traits toward people, and they do not know how to socialize with other lemurs,” the lemur center’s website says. “If a pet lemur or other pet primate injures someone, public health officials often require the animal to be euthanized. Nearly always, the animal is the ultimate loser.”
It was unclear how Mr. Kasbar gained access to the zoo overnight, but prosecutors said he had used a pair of bolt cutters to cut through one enclosure that housed six ring-tailed lemurs and another that housed eight capuchin monkeys.
Zoo employees discovered the primates wandering on zoo property the next morning and coaxed them with grapes to return to their enclosures. There was no sign of Isaac, however.
Not long after, the zoo received a call from the police in Newport Beach, saying that they had Isaac, who, like many common household pets, has a microchip embedded in him for identification purposes.
He had been left in the plastic storage bin at the front door of a Marriott hotel with a note saying: “Lemur (with tracker). This belongs to the Santa Ana Zoo it was taken last night please bring it to police.” The hotel is about 11 miles from the zoo.
Mr. Kasbar gained attention last summer when he posted a video online of himself surfing on an air mattress that was viewed more than 100,000 times. His lawyer said his client had never intended to cause harm to Isaac and tried to make amends for his poor decision.
“He put down that it had a tracker on it because he wanted to make sure that nobody stole the lemur from the hotel after they came across it,” Mr. Gurwitz said.