A FORMER employee who stole penguins from a zoo in a £25,000 haul of exotic birds is facing jail.

Magistrates were told how Bradley Michael Tomes broke into South Lakes Safari Zoo on two occasions to steal the rare birds, cutting a whole in the side of an aviary in the overnight thefts.

The 25-year-old was rumbled when an animal rescuer in Nottinghamshire, who bought the penguins on Facebook, alerted the authorities.

Tomes, who used to work at the Dalton attraction, pleaded guilty to stealing 12 spoonbill birds on July 22 2018 followed by two Humboldt penguins and three macaws on October 27 2018.

The defendant, of Hesketh Lane in Preston, also admitted transporting and selling the animals when he appeared before South Cumbria Magistrates’ Court.

Prosecutor Lee Dacre told the court: “On July 22 when staff opened up they saw a hole had been cut in perimeter fence of the aviary and exotic birds had been extracted, valued at around £20,000.

“Their suspicions fell on the defendant. He had worked there previously as bird keeper and had previously asked if he could buy some of the animals.

“Initially enquires by Lancashire Police did not come up with anything.”

Mr Dacre then described how the animals came to be returned to the zoo.

“On January 16 an animal collector who bought the penguins on Facebook contacted vets saying they were in bad health,” he said.

“The defendant asked the person not to contact the police and he would refund him the money.

“Staff from the zoo travelled to the collector’s address and tags on the birds confirmed they were stolen.

“Staff were able to pick up the penguins.”

Mr Dacre said the first set of birds the defendant stole were worth £19,400 and the others £6,000.

The court heard the defendant was convicted of animals neglect and sentenced to 20 weeks in prison suspended for a year in July 2019.

Magistrates decided their sentencing powers were not enough and sent the case to Preston Crown Court, with Tomes told he could face up to five years.

He will appear there to be sentenced on October 16.

Following the hearing Reece Oliver, who bought the penguins, described buying them from the defendant in a straw box.

The 29-year-old said: “He seemed suspicious but you have to take people as they come

“They were a little bit ill so I called the vet.

“Penguins are very specialised and they can easily die in the wrong hands.”

He added: “The zoo came to me and it all worked quite well in the end. I just hope the penguins are OK.”