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23 arrests in probe of reptile trade

Steve Orr | Staff writer | 3/19/2009 | The Democrat & Chronicle


Juvenile eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, listed as endangered in both New York and the Province of Ontario, were allegedly smuggled across the border into New York during a covert transaction involving a Canadian wildlife smuggler. (Richard Thomas / NYS DEC)

A two-year undercover probe by New York environmental investigators of the murky, thriving trade in turtles and snakes has culminated in the arrest of 23 people.

At a news conference in Albany this morning, state officials were to announce they have brought criminal charges against 17 individuals, including a Genesee County man, plus a company in Florida.

Pennsylvania authorities have charged more six people, and federal authorities are pursuing charges against firms in Maryland and Louisiana.

The probe, dubbed Operation Shellshock, was based in the Rochester area and eventually uncovered wide interest in the buying and selling of protected New York species throughout North America and beyond.

State Department of Environmental Conservation officials said it was one of the largest and most wide-ranging criminal investigations the agency has ever conducted. Suspects were identified in five states and in Canada.

In some instances, the case focused on the capture or sale of native species such as the brightly colored box and wood turtles, and the venomous timber rattlesnakes and copperheads, which are sought after by some collectors.

In other cases, the focus was turtles or turtle eggs gathered in the wild to serve markets for turtle meat in China and elsewhere.

“We were addressing what was becoming a mammoth industry in New York, and that was the illegal trade in New York reptiles,” said Lt. Richard Thomas, a DEC law enforcement officer based in Avon, Livingston County. “As far as the number of people we’re charging, we’re making a small dent. As far as the message we want to send, we’re making a large dent.”

All told, the DEC brought criminal charges against 15 New York state residents, two New Jersey residents, a Canadian and a Florida company that is accused of trafficking in native New York turtles.

The state charges involve possession or commercialization of wildlife. At least seven defendants face felony charges.

Thomas and DEC investigator Daniel Sullivan worked undercover, posing as reptile aficionados and, in Thomas’s case, as a wildlife photographer.

He acknowledged that some people may have difficulty finding sympathy for rattlesnakes and snapping turtles, but he said they should.

“We shouldn’t be protecting just the cute and cuddly things. These animals are critically important – in some cases more important than all the animals we see in children’s books,” Thomas said.

Reptiles and amphibians are bedrock species in their ecosystems, consuming insects and small mammals that are perceived as pests, and in turn being consumed by larger animals.

Thomas said scientists also believe turtles may be indicator species that are especially sensitive to man-made pollutants. “It’s kind of the canary-in-the-coal-mine type of thing,” he said.

More than a decade ago, outbreaks of strange birth defects among frogs and other amphibians led scientists to endocrine disruptors, a type of chemicals believed to cause reproductive changes and other problems. Regulators have been tightening control over use of these chemicals in recent years to guard against similar problems in humans.

Beyond that, Thomas said, there’s the basic belief that nature should be protected and preserved.

“If you’re hiking and you see a timber rattlesnake…it adds to the experience. We don’t want to be at the point here in New York state where we have no snakes,” he said
In the course of their investigation, the two DEC agents worked their way into the confidence of many collectors and sellers.

Sullivan, for instance, watched as two men grabbed snapping turtle eggs from nests on Long Island moments after female turtles crawled away. The men hatched thousands of eggs and passed the baby turtles through a Louisiana company to “launder” their origin. Ultimately, the turtles went to buyers in China for $8 each, said Capt. Michael VanDurme, who heads law enforcement for the DEC in its Avon regional office.

Those two Suffolk County residents have been charged with multiple felony counts of commercialization of wildlife. Federal officials intend to charge the Louisiana company for its role, state officials said.

The undercover investigators also traded protected New York timber rattlesnakes to a resident of Ontario, Canada for even rarer creatures — eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes, which are listed as endangered in both Ontario and New York. The man was arrested in a Niagara County parking lot in October shortly after he crossed the border with 33 of the venomous little rattlesnakes hidden in his van, VanDurme said.

Canadian officials reported that the man, Emanuele Tesoro, 42, had poached virtually the entire population of Massasaugas in one the snakes’ few known habitats in Ontario. The rattlers have been kept at the Toronto zoo and are to be placed back in the wild this spring, Thomas said.

Tesoro, of Hamilton, Ontario, has been charged by the DEC, by the province of Ontario and by federal officials in both countries.

Law enforcement personnel in DEC’s Avon regional office say they began discussing a possible investigation more than three years ago.

“We knew that New York people were engaged in the trade. But when we proposed the initial investigation, we did not have specific people we were looking at,” he said.

Investigators visited collectors’ and traders’ Web sites and began going to markets and shows for collectors interested in herps — shorthand for the reptiles and amphibians studied by herpetologists.

At the same time, in what VanDurme called a happy coincidence,” New York state law was being changed to declare reptiles and amphibians to be small game. That meant they could only be hunted if and when a hunting season was set. Trapping was barred outright by the law, which went into effect at the end of 2005.

Among those charged with misdemeanor counts were Kenneth R. Howard Jr., 53, of Oakfield, Genesee County, and Michael J. Loveless, 58, of Machias, Cattaraugus County. Both men are accused of illegally trapping snapping turtles and selling them in Maryland for meat.

Before the 2005 law change, numerous people trapped turtles for their meat, he said. That practice was outlawed, and more trappers stopped. “These were the only two we found who continued to trap after it became illegal,” VanDurme said.

   

 

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