lizard crime scene

SocietyJanuary 9, 2019

How a pet bearded dragon got abducted by a government vet

lizard crime scene

A lost exotic pet lizard called Hades was found in an Auckland suburb, but instead of returning it to its owner, it was flown to an MPI vet in Wellington. What happened? Don Rowe investigates.

It started with an anonymous tip: “Request all government communications regarding the theft and transportation of a bearded dragon – you’ll like what you find.”

When those communications arrived – after the Ministry of Primary Industries pleaded extra time to consult employees and lawyers – the evidence was disturbing. It appeared that a lost bearded dragon had been flown to an MPI vet in Wellington, at her request, despite some of those involved knowing to whom it belonged.

“I guess I’ll just have to deal with the bad karma,” they said.

Mugshot of the fugitive released under the Official Information Act

Pogona vitticeps, or the central bearded dragon, is a species of flat, spiny lizard native to Australia and kept as exotic pets around the world. Named for the “beard” of spikes which inflates under their throat when antagonised, beardies can live up to a decade in the right conditions and grow into sizable and tough lizards on a high-protein diet. As juveniles, beardies run upwards of $400 in New Zealand. They’re not so easy to come by.

A trove of partially redacted emails revealed that in January, 2018, a bearded dragon named Hades escaped into the streets of Mt Roskill, Auckland. For seven months, through the freezing winter, he waited.

When temperatures drop, bearded dragons enter brumation, a state similar to hibernation. The dragon lay dormant, waking occasionally to drink and shift position. Mostly he rested. Days, weeks, months went by, and still he slept.

In August the dragon was discovered at a property in Lynfield. The Ministry for Primary Industries deployed a herpetologist to “uplift” the animal, ostensibly an action taken to protect vulnerable ecology from exotic intruders. 

Once it became apparent the dragon was an escaped pet, protocol demanded an MPI staffer, someone with forensic scrutiny and impeccable ethics, be tasked with finding the owner. This was not done. The MPI vet, from Wellington, failed to locate the lizard’s owner. It had been seven months, and that information wasn’t readily to hand. But it did exist. 

And then, rather than engaging an exotic vet in the Auckland area to care for the weakened lizard, the vet arranged to have him sent by plane the length of the island to their home in Wellington.

Information released to The Spinoff reveals the vet knew beyond doubt that Hades the dragon had an owner, and how to reach them, yet they instructed an accomplice to package him up anyway.

The MPI vet, whose name was redacted, had been searching to buy a lizard for some time, emails indicate. During this period they contacted an Auckland breeder using their MPI email address and arranged to purchase a juvenile. But after MPI “uplifted” the adult dragon from the house in Lynfield, the vet cancelled their order.   

Just after 7.30am on August 15, at a bioresearch facility in Auckland, an acquaintance of the vet was searching Facebook’s lost and found pages. Emails reveal that the contact managed to identify the owner, but held off from informing them until they’d communicated further with the vet. 

“What do you want to do here? Obviously the animal has been well looked after by a caring owner.”

Forty minutes later, they added: “I can still drop the critter off for ya. Just let me know.”

“I feel awful and exceptionally selfish now but my little girl will be devastated if we don’t get this one now,” replied the vet. “I don’t know how long it’ll be before we can get a baby either now, so yes, can we please continue with the plan? And I guess I’ll deal with the bad karma.”

Released under the Official Information Act

The next evening the vet emailed another acquaintance from their work account.

“Quite the story of coincidences behind this one but we finally have a bearded dragon!” they said. “Meet (probably) Draco.” 

How did you find him, they asked.

“Tell you the story later.”

In the last days of August, emails reveal Hades’ Auckland-based owner finally reached MPI after multiple attempts. An internal investigation was launched. Internal ministry emails show the vet told their superiors at MPI they had been unable to find the owner, and had gone above and beyond in their care for the dragon. 

“I believe I have acted in good faith and with the welfare of the animal in mind, and performed adequate due diligence of looking for a previous owner,” the vet said. “It is above and beyond the actions I would be expected to take on behalf of MPI for an escaped exotic pet in the wild.”

They were willing to return the dragon, they said, but only because it was “not in their interests” to continue caring for it or growing more attached. The family was under the impression the dragon now belonged to them, they said – despite knowing the lizard had a real owner. 

Expense tables released under the OIA refer to the “adoption” of a bearded dragon, with a total of $180 for transport and packaging refundable to the vet on submission of an expense form. It remains unclear whether a refund was ever issued, however Hades has been returned. An MPI spokesperson said they were aware of the incident and had begun a formal internal process.

“The process concluded that the staff member had shown poor judgement. As a result of this process, changes have been made to the standard operating procedure.

“This incident is still under review.”

The owner of the lizard, when contacted by the Spinoff, declined to comment.

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