In 12 years of running a pet store, Lewis Dooling has learned to deal with crimes both common and uncommon. Shoplifters have made off with his $500 Chihuahua, his $80 turtle, and he's even had tarantulas taken. Kids are always trying to steal his snakes, so he has security cameras aimed at the reptile cages, deadbolts on the doors and an after-hours alarm system.
But Mr. and Mrs. Toucie -- his fierce, fiesty $10,000 sulphur-breasted toucans -- had always been the untouchables. Dooling felt secure about that Labor Day weekend. He arrived at 6:30 a.m. Saturday at his Arrowhead Fish and Pets on Shaver Road, turned on the lights and the air conditioner and switched off the alarm. Then he let the guard dog out into the back alley and hooked her 30-foot chain to the telephone pole.
Dooling went home to shower and returned three hours later to open for business on that rainy Saturday. He didn't panic when he saw the broken front window -- he figured some kids had done it. In the past five years he's had his front window broken three times, but nothing was ever stolen.
Now, beside the 150-gallon fish tank, he saw that the toucans' cages were empty. He called his rottweiler, One, who usually greets him at the door. When she didn't come, Dooling sat down on the floor of his store and cried.
His toucans, smooth black birds with canary-yellow stomachs, are the big draw to his shop. Large chain stores -- whose tanks sport colorful gravel, castles and deep-sea divers instead of his broken flower pots and beige rocks -- don't carry these Latin American birds. The creatures have blazing blue eyes, and their long beaks look like fresh slices of honeydew melon splashed with cranberry and cantaloupe.
"They're pretty neat-looking," says Sergeant J.M. Baird, public information officer for the Pasadena police. "It's like the Fruit Loop bird." Mr. and Mrs. Toucie are not for sale. Dooling's mother bought them from a Dallas breeder three years ago and now they're family, Dooling says.
Such expensive avian attractions appear almost out of place at Dooling's dreary little shop next to the Dollar General. There are cobwebs between fish tanks that are either empty or have a few tired fish. An albino oscar lies flat on its side in the corner of its tank. Dooling reaches in, pets the fish and stands it upright. "Are you going to die on me, Mr. Oscar?" he asks.
Thieves once tried to steal his $1,500 umbrella cockatoo, so he put a lock on its cage, which sits in a back corner behind two Belgian rat dogs and a fat white rabbit.
This time, Dooling figures the perpetrators kicked open the front window -- since it's laminated like a car windshield, it didn't shatter. He thinks they threw two aquarium rocks at his 90-pound guard dog, blackened her eye, jumped through the guinea pig pen, opened the bird cages and took off.
"Whoever done it was mean," says Tina Heishman, who works in the store.
"They had to be professionals," Dooling says. He closed the shop and went to the bird show at the Pasadena Fairgrounds, where he alerted wholesalers that his birds were gone, and he tracked down dealers with bad reputations. No one had seen his birds. But he made plans to be at the show's next stops in Tulsa and Kansas City.
Late last Tuesday morning, a teenage girl who said her name was Amy called Dooling and said she had been jogging in Pearland's Liberty Park when she noticed a cardboard box beneath a tree. She opened it, saw two black birds, closed the box and went to school. She says she called her mother, who had seen Dooling on the news, and thought they might be his missing toucans.
Pearland police found the birds in a three-foot Trim 'n Edger box that was duct-taped shut. The female was in a smaller carton inside the bigger box. Dooling figures the burglars got frightened that the birds would die because they wouldn't eat. He says they're high-maintenance hypoglycemic creatures that won't eat unless they know the person feeding them and feel relaxed. Plus, instead of seed they need sugar -- fresh papaya, mangos and melons.
Back home, the male has been splashing about in his water, happily hopping from one branch to the next, lightly cleaning his beak and contentedly looking around like Toucan Sam. The female, however, has a frightened, frazzled, frayed look. There's panic and fear as she quickly jumps around the cage, banging her beak against the wood like a Bellevue patient. She wouldn't eat or drink most of the first day home. Her tail feathers were yanked off and her eye is bruised. "Her rump is real sore," Dooling says. He wanted to take her to the vet, but he didn't want to upset her further.
The cops are investigating. "We're doing everything we can to determine who the culprits are," Baird says. "Somebody stole the birds. That's what we know."
In the meantime, Dooling has ordered nine padlocks for his bird cages. "Lloyds of London -- they insure racehorses, but they don't insure birds," he laments. (Dooling called Lloyds the week he bought the birds.)
"All I know is my good old guardian angel was watching over my shoulder," he says.
And from now on, a bigger, meaner 150-pound male rottweiler is going to be watching over his birds.