Exotic-animal trade unleashes burden on Arizona

Traffickers seldom punished; critters crowding sanctuaries

Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 23, 2007 12:00 AM

Arizona wildlife-sanctuary operators are swamped with exotic animals because they say criminals who sell critters on the black market seldom face serious punishment.

Of the 700 alligators, lizards and other reptiles at the Phoenix Herpetological Society in Scottsdale, for example, 120 were confiscated from poachers and traffickers, and others were possessed illegally and dropped off by owners who no longer wanted them.

Russ Johnson, president of the society, said there is little deterrence in the courts for the traffickers, who can make hundreds or thousands of dollars off the sale of one snake or Gila monster. Violators frequently walk away without serving a day behind bars or paying a steep fine.

“Our court system has thought that the importation of these alligators, crocodiles and snakes is not a very serious offense,” he said. “Most of these people are just given a slap on the wrist.”

Convicted dealers often are released on probation with minor fines. “They consider that the cost of doing business, and they go back to what they were doing,” Johnson said.

The prosecution of Raymond E. Robinson is a case in point.

Investigators used an undercover operative in 2002 to sting the California resident, who was selling three Gila monsters and two golden eyelash vipers from South America for $7,500 in Goodyear. Robinson pleaded guilty, with the felony reduced to a misdemeanor as part of the deal. He got a $200 fine with no jail time.

“That is where it’s really frustrating to me,” said Hans Koenig, an Arizona Game and Fish ranger who testified about the damage done by poachers. “This is theft – the worst kind of theft – because it is stealing from the people of Arizona . . . with no consequences.”

‘Problem is huge’

There are no state or national statistics on the trafficking of restricted animals.

But “the problem is huge,” said Vernon Weir, director of the Nevada-based American Sanctuary Association. “It’s the sanctuaries that get dumped on. Sanctuaries all across this country are just stuffed full of animals.”

Weir said the problem is exacerbated because some states allow the ownership, breeding and sale of exotic wildlife. People adopt alligators and lions, he said, but cannot care for them as adults. Or they move to states such as Arizona, where keeping them is outlawed without a special permit.

Weir, whose association has accredited 30 sanctuaries nationwide, said he tries to find acceptable homes for seized wildlife, usually in zoos. But some large mammals and reptiles may be euthanized because there is nowhere to place them.

The Herpetological Society’s compound opened in 2002 with 22 reptiles, a population that has increased more than 30-fold. “Right now, we have 45 alligators and crocodiles in our facility we’re trying to find homes for,” Johnson said. “You know, people say, ‘I’m up to my ass in alligators?’ We are the epitome, the picture of that.”

In the past two years, Johnson said, his group has found homes for 20 alligators, 158 venomous snakes, 32 Gila monsters and 200 other reptiles. Still, with government seizures and private parties’ dropping off unwanted critters, he has been forced to expand the crowded sanctuary.

The Herpetological Society, a non-profit run by volunteers in a $250,000 compound, receives donations of food and veterinary care but spends $25,000 each year on food and medicine. Most of its revenue comes from private donations.

Another animal sanctuary in Scottsdale has similar expenses for its big cats.

The Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Foundation cares for eight mountain lions and six bobcats that were seized or owned illegally in Arizona. Each lion requires an enclosure that costs $80,000 to construct, plus about $7,300 per year in food, vet bills and other care.

“All of them have medical issues because the people who get them don’t know how to care for them,” said Linda Searles, executive director of Southwest Wildlife.

Getting light sentences

Searles and Johnson reel off stories of convicted wildlife owners or dealers who got off with light sentences.

Consider Lucy and Charlie, alligators taken several years ago from a Maryvale residence. Johnson said five Game and Fish officers, eight police officers and two emergency medical technicians participated in the raid. Later, he said, the owner explained his unusual pets during a court hearing: “The guy said he raised them from when they were little and he used to swim with them. . . . The judge listened to him and thought it was funny. All he got was a $100 fine.”

Another case involved Jeffrey Almond, who operated a reptile-rescue business in Cave Creek. When investigators raided his home two years ago they seized 75 animals. Johnson said 15 Gila monsters in a bathtub were so sick they had to be hand-fed for months.

In Scottsdale Justice Court, Almond could have been jailed and fined up to $750 per animal, plus restitution of $2,000 per year for each creature. Instead, Johnson said, “we got nothing, and the state got $200.” Almond also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in federal court, where he received a $500 fine.

Searles said law enforcement needs to take wildlife violations more seriously and seek stiffer fines and jail time. “I think that’s why this is a growing crime,” she said.

Jay Cook, a law enforcement supervisor with the Department of Game and Fish, said only about a dozen animal-trafficking cases get prosecuted each year, partly because it is hard to catch the traffickers.

Cook said wildlife defenders have a legitimate gripe about leniency: “Some of that is because we probably didn’t push as much as we could have. I think we’re going to look at that in the future. We’re probably going to pursue a little harder line.”

Johnson and Daniel Marchand, curator at the Herpetological Society, said poachers and dealers deplete populations of rare creatures and introduce unwanted species to Arizona’s environment. They also endanger the public with venomous snakes and potentially deadly predators.

“They often have a love for animals,” Marchand added. “But they love the money more. They get the animals, and they don’t treat them correctly. They see them as dollars in a cage.”

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8874.

http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/ 0623wildlife0623.html

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