By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006; Page A19
It began with a tip. A phone call from a concerned woman to a federal agency that an illegal trade was about to take place. That was in August 2004. A small player was arrested, but the call set investigators on a trail that led them from coast to coast, and they eventually arrested nine targets.
It sounds like an FBI investigation, but “Operation Cat Tale” is an effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to end the illegal trading of ocelots, a rare and exotic breed of cat worth $5,000 each.
This month, prosecutors announced they had charged five defendants from Oregon, California, Texas and New York with crimes related to the sale of the endangered animal.
For some, owning this rare cat is a status symbol.
“The reason this is happening is greed and passion,” said Crawford Allan, deputy director of Traffic North America, a unit of the World Wildlife Fund that monitors the trade of animals. “A person has a keen interest in a particular type of species and then works out a way to get their hands on them. It is like they want a piece of the wild at home.”
Allan said he had seen cases of people carrying animals, including reptiles, under their clothes onto planes. He knew of times when chimpanzees were smuggled abroad. In this case, the ocelots were probably transported over land, he said.
Four of the defendants have entered a plea agreement and face fines ranging from $10,000 to $60,000. In each case, the agency found that parties mischaracterized the sale as “donations” and the payment as “contributions.” Three more people were fined for participation in illegal trafficking.
“We used standard tactics where we work with smaller players and work up the hierarchy to the main distributors,” said Dwight Holton, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting this case. Holton previously worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, prosecuting gangs involved in homicides, drugs and terrorism. “It is a technique used in the investigation of other crimes, as well,” he said.
The reason this ongoing investigation is so important, Holton said, is that the sales create a market that encourages poachers to target the animals. “Part of the point of the Endangered Species Act is to end the commercialization of these animals to avoid poachers from taking them from the wild,” he said.
But critics say the Endangered Species Act is out of date when it comes to the ocelot — there have been barely any cases of poaching for decades — and that the latest investigation has criminalized people running sanctuaries whose aim is to prevent the North American ocelot from becoming extinct.
There are fewer than 100 ocelots left in the wild in the United States. The long-tailed cats — covered in spots and stripes — used to be found throughout Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Now the few survivors can be found only in the three southernmost counties of Texas. The main reason for the decline is a loss of habitat and the building of roads.
“The number one cause of death is that they get hit by cars,” said Jody Mays, wildlife biologist for Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge who tracks the remaining animals and looks for ways to prevent their demise. “They are a really beautiful animal with beautiful coloration,” Mays said.
This case began with the arrest of Deborah Walding of Beaverton, Ore., in 2004. The warrant used to search her house in late March was stamped with a picture of an ocelot. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agents had been tipped off by Cheryl Tuller, co-founder of Wildcat Haven, a nonprofit rescue facility for captive-born wildcats where Walding was keeping two ocelots named Paris and Bellagio.
After being told of Walding’s plans to sell the cats to a “private zoo” in New York, Tuller informed authorities. She went on to tape phone calls with Walding that led to her arrest. Tuller said Walding liked to impress people and wanted to own things no one else had. “The sad thing is we were trying to protect the cats, but in order to have the operation go forward we had to allow her to take them and sell them in New York,” Tuller said. When they were picked up there, Bellagio had died.
The information from Walding helped authorities find others involved in the trafficking. The largest fine was imposed on the Isis Society for Inspirational Studies, an arm of the Temple of Isis — a California church dedicated to the Isian religion.
Mona Lisa Wallace, general counsel of the nonprofit organization, said the group’s “motivation was always pure and in the interest of the preservation of the last remnants of North American ocelots.” She has been campaigning for a change in the endangered species law, arguing that ocelots are not a target of poachers and should be allowed to be bred in sanctuaries to save their species.
Wallace said she was shocked by how her client had been treated. “Reverend Loreon Vigne is a 74-year-old woman and is fragile. She thought [the sale] was legitimate, as this is a nonprofit. I have been shocked and disappointed by the lack of compassion and kindness in the prosecution of this matter.”