Vietnamese restaurant owner fined over stolen Perth Zoo tortoises

Environment Minister Stephen Dawson with Perth Zoo veterinary nurse supervisor Peta Moore and the two tortoises stolen from the zoo in 2011. Picture: Lauren Pilat
Environment Minister Stephen Dawson with Perth Zoo veterinary nurse supervisor Peta Moore and the two tortoises stolen from the zoo in 2011. Picture: Lauren Pilat

A JOONDALUP magistrate has fined a Girrawheen man $7000 over the illegal possession of three Madagascan radiated tortoises stolen from Perth Zoo.

Magistrate Elaine Campione said she would have handed Mai Huy Vu Vo (29) a jail term had he, in fact, stolen the microchipped tortoises because of their critically endangered status – there are just 400 left in the world.

Ms Campione said she accepted Vo had taken good care of the two he claimed he had bought about 2011 – he purchased the other in 2016 and handed it to police after seeing a news report about a tortoise stolen from the zoo a week earlier – “but that doesn’t matter.”

The magistrate said she was no expert but wondered about “breeding opportunities forgone” and the cost to the scientific world “deprived of these tortoises for a considerable period of time”.

“This is a very serious brain snap on your part simply because you love animals,” she said. “I am not going to impose a prison term.”

Ms Campione said she would impose a meaningful fine as a general deterrent.

But she took into account his early guilty plea, limited income – the court heard he received a below-average income from the Vietnamese restaurant he ran with his wife – and his good character.

She had read three references, including from his wife and parish priest.

“I accept you are usually a good person and you have good antecedents,” Ms Campione said.

“And the references handed up to me speak very highly of you.

“So you’re a hard working man who ordinarily minds his own business and doesn’t come to the attention of the courts or authorities. You have co-operated with the police and the authorities.”

Vo, who came to Australia in 2006, was represented by lawyer Mark Gunning and had an interpreter assist him.

Mr Gunning said when Vo handed the tortoise to police in February 2016, his limited English and education meant he hadn’t realised it was an endangered species.

The other two, the court heard, had been stolen from the zoo on June 8, 2011.

The police prosecutor said Vo told officers he had bought them from a friend of a drug dealer about 2011.

Police had attended his house in September this year after a report of a break-in or damage and noticed two tortoises that they reported to Parks and Wildlife officers.

Mr Gunning argued his client thought the “tortoises were wildlife”.

He thought there “might be something wrong with having a wild creature” at his house but had not believed they were from the zoo.

The prosecutor said the offence was serious – it was not a stolen television or mobile phone the court was considering but rare tortoises.

Vo had returned one tortoise; he “must have known the other two were the same type or at least make inquiries about it”.

Ms Campione said Vo had “done the right thing” in 2016 by handing the tortoise to police, who said he had told them he had bought it from a man at a bus stop in Northbridge for $200.

But she found it “incomprehensible” that he had not taken the other two tortoises to the police. They were the same “unique animals”. She also said “there must have been some information in that news article that the species were endangered”.

Mr Gunning said it was “good all three tortoises found their way back to the zoo”.

“It’s good all – I understand – are in good health,” he said.

“He cared for the tortoises for a number of years and had them as a pet.

“And his wife has indicated she had no idea.”

Mr Gunning said his client did not realise the tortoises were microchipped.

“He believes he may have been targeted because of his love of wildlife (including keeping fish),” he said.

Vo was ordered to pay costs of $205.30.