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Pets or meat: Investigators allege reptile smuggling

DEC, numerous agencies round up 18 following two-year operation

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 - State officials today announced a two-year undercover investigation of illegal trade in snakes, turtles and other wildlife that stretched across eight states and as far as Germany and China.

Eighteen people have been charged for allegedly selling protected wildlife though the Internet and at collectors shows.

Investigators documented more than 2,400 illegal sales and are now holding 400 animals as evidence, poisonous snakes and snapping turtles.

Most of the arrests took place within the metropolitan New York area and lower Hudson Valley, although a Ballston Spa man, Sean Kirk, 34, was among those charged. Kirk allegedly sold three Eastern Box turtles captured in New York state to a DEC undercover investigator for $550.

Investigators showing off the animals seized in the probe say dozens of endangered rattlesnakes were hidden in the door panels of a minivan and smuggled from Canada in exchange for timber rattlesnakes, a threatened species in New York.

Several rattlers were on display at a morning news conference, and the sound of the agitated snakers' rattles could be heard.

The DEC worked with wildlife officials from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida as well as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service, Environment Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

The investigation was into the illegal wildlife trade was sparked in 2006, in part by a complaint from Buffalo State University, which had reported that a population of 30 turtles, some embedded with radio transmitters, suddenly vanished. Those turtles have never been found.

Some of the animals found in the investigation were prized by collectors, particularly venomous snakes, while others, including turtles, were sold for meat, particularly in the Chinese market.

State officials found that a legitimate turtle farm in Louisiana was "laundering" illegally captured turtles before shipping them to China.


Eastern box turtles are among the exotic animals turned up by a DEC undercover investigation into poaching and illegal sales of New York's native turtles, snakes and salamanders. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)


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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