Authorities seize rare animals in illegal reptile ring

By BREE FOWLER, Associated Press Writer
DETROIT (AP) - State and federal wildlife officials seized hundreds of rare and threatened turtles and snakes in Saturday raids across three states aimed at breaking up one of the nation's largest networks of illegal reptile and amphibian sales.
The raids just before 9 a.m. in Ohio, Indiana and southern Michigan followed a two-year investigation by the states' departments of natural resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, officials said.
"It's the first time we've actually been able to catch them and hopefully it will send a strong message to curtail that activity," said Brad Wurfel, press secretary for the Michigan DNR.
The ring was under observation for more than a decade, and the break came when investigators managed to infiltrate the group by posing as dealers, trappers and customers, officials said.
More than 100 snakes, turtles and other animals were seized as 10 homes were searched in Ohio, said Jim Quinlivan, law enforcement supervisor for the Ohio DNR's Wildlife Division.
At least 32 people were charged with about 150 counts, with more charges still being processed through Saturday night, he said. The number of suspects could eventually top 100, Quinlivan said.
"These were mostly people who had collected the animals out in the wild," he said.
About 150 protected turtles and 20 protected snakes were seized in Michigan, along with marijuana, according to an undercover detective with the Michigan DNR who asked that his name not be published. Their market value was estimated at more than $55,000.
Some of the animals were spotted turtles, which are a protected species in Michigan and can sell for as much as $250 each, the detective said. The illegally traded animals also included spotted salamanders, which are amphibians.
Many of the Ohio animals are colorful snakes and turtles native to the Lake Erie shore, while others such as Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes are found in hilly regions inland.
Breakdowns for Indiana were not immediately available Saturday evening.
The results of the federal investigation will be forwarded to the U.S. Attorney for possible federal charges, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
The seized animals likely cannot be released into the wild, because they might have picked up diseases from human handling, Quinlivan said.
They will be kept as evidence during the investigation and any trials, then likely turned over to zoological or wildlife organizations for education. Some might be used as breeding stock to repopulate endangered and threatened species, he said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)