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State puts bite on cold-blooded operation

Authorities say 18 people charged after probe into large-scale poaching of reptiles, amphibians

By BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer | 3/20/2009 | The Times Union


A tub filled with baby snapping turtles is shown at a Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters in Albany. Investigators seized the turtles and hundreds of other reptiles as part of a probe of animal poaching. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)

ALBANY — It took months for undercover state conservation police officers Daniel Sullivan and Richard Thomas to be trusted within the tight-knit world of illegal "herping" — shorthand for poaching of reptiles and amphibians.

But once inside, the pair uncovered a thriving black market for some of New York's most-threatened wildlife that stretched across eight states and into Canada and as far as Germany and China.

In one instance, a dealer bragged that he had made $100,000 in a year by selling thousands of snapping turtles to a Louisiana turtle farm that "laundered" the transaction before shipping the animals to China for food.

In another case, a poacher who had been taking venomous copperheads — which can sell for several hundred dollars — from the Mohonk Preserve near New Paltz showed Thomas a home video of the swelling and discoloration that spread through his arm after being bitten by one of the snakes.

And a reptile dealer from Canada was arrested in a Niagara Falls parking lot after he smuggled in 33 endangered massasauga rattlesnakes in the door panels of a minivan in exchange for Eastern timber rattlesnakes. Timber rattlers are a threatened species in New York, where populations are limited to certain rocky ledges around Lake George and parts of the Catskill Mountains.

On Thursday, state officials revealed a three-year undercover investigation dubbed Operation Shellshock into the trafficking of protected species — turtles, snakes and salamanders — through the Internet and at herpetological shows where collectors buy, sell and trade animals like baseball cards.

So far, 18 people have been charged with 34 felonies, 31 misdemeanors and more than 2,000 violations, with investigators documenting more than 2,400 illegal sales. About 400 live animals are being held as evidence.

Most arrests were made within the metropolitan New York area and lower Hudson Valley, although a Ballston Spa man, Sean Kirk, 34, was among those charged with a misdemeanor, Kirk allegedly sold three Eastern box turtles native to New York to Thomas for $550.

Kirk, who could not be reached for comment, has sold reptiles over the Internet under the name of Sean's Exotics, and has used the Web site herps4sale.com. His most recent site has been taken down.

Penalties for illegal wildlife sales range from up to 15 days in jail and a $250 fine to a $5,000 fine and a four-year prison term. Illegal sales have been traced to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Hawaii.

"A very lucrative illegal market for these creatures does exist, fostered by a strong, clandestine culture of people who want to exploit wildlife for illegal profit," said state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis at a news conference at DEC headquarters into the state's largest undercover wildlife sting.

Since 2006, it has been illegal to buy, sell, collect or possess any of the state's native reptiles and amphibians, although permits allow for limited educational uses. Earlier laws were less comprehensive and varied from species to species.


Tom Hudak, who runs Scales and Tails, a wildlife education business, holds a black phase timber rattlesnake that has been placed in a tube for safe handling. The snake was on display at a news conference about the arrest of poachers who state investigators say were selling exotic animals. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)


Tom Hudak, who runs Scales and Tails, a wildlife education business, displays a massassauga rattlesnake during a news conference at Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters in Albany. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)

   

 

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