A former zookeeper stole two penguins during a night-time raid in order to sell them, a court heard.
Bradley Tomes, 25, purloined a total of £25,000 worth of rare birds from the South Lakes Safari in Cumbria, where he used to work.
South Cumbria Magistrates court heard that Tomes had cut a hole in the perimeter fence of an aviary where he used to work to steal 12 spoonbill birds in July 2018, before abducting the penguins and three macaws 3 months later.
But he was rumbled after he sold the two tiny Humboldt penguins, named Pablo and Penny, on Facebook to animal rescuer Reece Oliver, who became suspicious.
Mr Oliver immediately contacted a local vet saying the animals were in bad health while Tomes urged him not to contact the police and offered to refund the money.
The rescuer checked their microchips and discovered they had been stolen and contacted police.
Describing the initial theft, Prosecutor Lee Dacre told the court: “On July 22 when staff opened up they saw a hole had been cut in the 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 enquiries by Lancashire Police did not come up with anything.”
Mr Dacre said the first set of birds the defendant stole were worth £19,400 and the others £6,000.
Tomes pleaded guilty to the two thefts and admitted to transporting and selling the animals, but Magistrates decided their sentencing powers were not enough and sent the case to Preston Crown Court, where he could face up to five years in jail.
He is due to be sentenced on October 16.
Sergeant Andrew Browning, of Nottinghamshire Police, who worked on the investigation,said: “My first thought was this is one for the books, and one to tell the grandkids, because there’s no way we thought we would go down there and actually find two penguins.
“It was a real off-the-wall find.”
Following the hearing Reece Oliver described buying them from the defendant in a straw box.
The show jumper, 29, 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.”
Humboldt penguins are native to South America and are named after the current of water they swim in, which takes its name from Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt.