Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cold Blooded Smuggling

In one cage a quintuplet of blue-green rhinoceros iguanas crowd driftwood perches. In another, cougar cubs wrestle like rambunctious children. Seized at Miami International Airport two years ago, the cats arrived here when they still fit in the palm of a hand. South American marmosets, banned as imports, clutch the mesh of their cages like grimacing puppets. Agoutis, stout brown rodents smuggled in for Santeria sacrifice, scurry among dead leaves and ashen sand, the aluminum slats shading their cage weighed down by dead wood and rotting grapefruits.

In one shadowy corner of the overgrown compound hides a long, brown trailer bearing a treasure trove of snakes, lizards, and turtles. It's here that were housed the pancake tortoises and American alligators that started a chain reaction of Florida arrests among the country's busiest reptile-smuggling operations.

Two years ago when Hollywood reptile importer Mike Van Nostrand's slippery creatures were seized, they wound up in the trailer. Some still remain, scattered among the young crocodiles, scaly-skinned caimans, baby tortoises, and Central American boas that crowd containers inside. Others have already been doled out to zoos or universities. Van Nostrand, a self-confessed bigtime smuggler and the biggest legitimate reptile importer on the East Coast before his import license was revoked last year, has lost hundreds of cold-blooded creatures to this place over the years, as have more than a few other Florida importers.

"We've been getting a lot more reptiles," says the big, bearded animal expert and reptile breeder who runs the evidence compound for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service at a secret location about 100 miles north of Miami. Hidden in a rural, middle-class neighborhood, among knobby oaks and lush tangelo trees, the place is a boisterous way station for contraband critters, where living evidence seized in Miami awaits judicial disposition.

Reptiles and amphibians -- "herps" in the lingo of collectors and breeders -- form the backbone of what Interpol estimates is the $6 billion worldwide trade in illegal animals, contraband second only to drugs in estimated value. And among live-animal entry points, Miami ranks number one in the nation -- beating out New York and Los Angeles -- for the volume and variety of live creatures clearing customs (and those sneaking past). Tens of thousands of frogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises enter South Florida every year, among them some of the rarest -- and deadliest -- creatures on Earth. Most wind up in the hands of a few big importers and wholesalers, like Van Nostrand's Strictly Reptiles, companies that thrive by feeding the vast hunger for the rare and obscure among the country's herp fanatics (the largest such group in the world).

The lure of fast, easy money inspires many American importers to smuggle in species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty designed to protect wildlife from overexploitation that is enforced in this country by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Importers know there are plenty of wealthy collectors who will shell out big bucks to be the first kid on the block to have an endangered species, people willing to pay more than $10,000 for a plowshare tortoise from Madagascar or an Angolan python. Many of these species, available cheap to smugglers in their native habitats, now teeter on the brink of extinction, and conservationists worry their disappearance might alter the balance in fragile Third World ecosystems. Rarity only makes the creatures more desirable to the handful of wealthy collectors who can afford to own them, and who tend to view reptiles more like rare coins than household pets. No one knows for sure how much damage smuggling has done to native habitats since CITES went into effect in 1973, but importers have generally proven more than willing to ignore such conservation concerns.

"Smugglers are driven by pure greed," says Chip Bepler, a Fish and Wildlife agent who has spent the last five years building cases against Strictly Reptiles and other South Florida reptile importers. "They think there's no real risk involved, that they'll get away with a slap on the wrist if they're caught."

Van Nostrand's company, with annual sales estimated by government sources to exceed $5 million, is still one of the country's largest wholesalers. (He lost only his import license and continues to sell creatures brought in by third-party importers.) Prosecutors contend that, before he was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to half a year in prison and ordered to pay a hefty fine, Van Nostrand dealt in more than 1500 smuggled animals. Many were brought in by freelance smugglers, men like Robert Lawracy and Dwayne Cunningham, a pair of South Florida cruise-ship workers who sold dozens of reptiles to Strictly and face trial later this month in Fort Lauderdale.

Strictly Reptiles, known to breeders, collectors, and retailers to have the largest variety of creatures with as many as 200 different species -- both legal and illegal -- was once a veritable reptile pawnshop. Travelers returning from Brazil, Peru, or Argentina knew they could make a few hundred quick bucks by stuffing some baby snakes in their pockets and a few tiny tortoises in their luggage and unloading the lot at Strictly. (Along with trade restrictions, federal regulations outlaw the importing of tortoises less than four inches long on the grounds that they may carry salmonella). "They didn't pay the most," says Bepler. "But they'd buy whatever you could bring them."

Van Nostrand -- who got out of prison last year, his sentence curtailed by agreeing to sell out associates (including Lawracy and Cunningham) -- refused to speak at length with New Times, though he met briefly with a reporter and shared a few observations before heeding a secretary's advice and deciding to clam up. "I was an arrogant son of a bitch," he said, leaning against a holding pen overflowing with snakes in his sprawling Stirling Road warehouse. "The feds were after me for five years," he continued. "I really thought I was untouchable. And then I got stupid and careless."

South Florida herpers (devoted reptile fanatics like to use the scientific term herpetology to describe both reptiles and amphibians) say Strictly's carelessness, and that of other Florida importers, gives a black eye to the entire reptile community. "The allure is too much for some people," says Mike Brennan, educational chair of the Sawgrass Herpetological Society, a nine-year-old group of Broward herpers that is one of 13 such groups in Florida. "There are two types of people," adds Mike's 19-year-old son, Chris, "those in it for the science and those in it for the money."

Strictly Reptiles is clearly motivated by the bottom line. Mike Van Nostrand says he doesn't even like reptiles, though at any given time his warehouse is crawling with hundreds of them. The company, which built its reputation in the late '80s by muscling in on the trade in live iguanas -- it is known as the "Iguana King" -- has long offered more of the popular lizards than anyone else in the business. The exterior of the company's headquarters is emblazoned with the head of a green iguana, and inside are stored hundreds of iguana babies, shipped in legally by third-party importers from farms in Latin America. "In the '80s if you weren't in iguanas, you weren't anybody," says Rian Gittman, a Deerfield Beach reptile retailer who got his start in importing by learning the trade from the Van Nostrands -- Mike and his father, Ray. Iguanas -- inexpensive, low-maintenance lizards -- have been the most popular reptile pet for more than 15 years. "Ray always told me iguanas are the business, period," says Gittman, who lost his import license in 1995 and wound up serving a year in prison on smuggling charges.

In light of the variety and volume available at Strictly, most everyone in the United States involved in the selling and collecting of reptiles and amphibians has at one time or another done business with the company. Even Strictly's biggest competitors -- importers like Bronx Reptile in New York, L.A. Reptile in California, and, until they shut down in 1997, Tom Crutchfield's Reptile Enterprises near Orlando -- bought from Strictly in order to add rare species to their price lists. "Strictly was always a cut above the rest," says Special Agent Bepler. "A lot of companies offered all of the bread-and-butter animals. Strictly had all that plus a lot of specialty items, like little expensive jewels that might make a pet shop stand out."

The cohesiveness of the reptile trade -- the business is tightly knit on local, national, and even international levels -- masks an inherent, often unspoken, rift. Breeders and hobbyists rarely see eye to eye with the big-money contingent, the importers and wholesalers upon whom they are dependent for new breeding stock. The two groups tolerate each other more out of economic necessity than anything else.

At the monthly reptile show held at the Red Carpet Inn, a low-rise motel on State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale, breeders bring their vibrantly hued reptile creations directly to consumers. The best of the bunch spend years perfecting color varieties that might never occur in nature, creating albino strains and bright red varieties of snakes and lizards, as well as the full spectrum of blues, greens, and yellows. "We make designer pets," says Doug Beard, a ponytailed South Miami-Dade breeder who specializes in snakes. "It's like art by God. We perfect mutations that are biologically worthless to meet the public desire to own a piece of nature."

At Red Carpet, Beard occupies one of a dozen tables laid out with reptiles and amphibians proudly advertised as "captive bred." Blue-uniformed Cub Scouts dart among the tables with boyish glee, eyeing $35 bearded geckos, $250 rhino iguanas, and $100 albino pythons. Breeders exchange gossip along with snakes and lizards -- mostly tiny snakes displayed in plastic petri dishes, which may one day grow to six, eight, or twelve feet and become the moms and pops to long lines of serpent babies. Most of the breeders have done business with Mike Van Nostrand -- he buys their surplus offspring and sells them new breeding pairs -- but few have much good to say about the man.

"Van Nostrand's a scumbag," offers one barrel-chested breeder. "If he goes back to jail, that would be an accomplishment."

"We think of them as 'Sickly Reptiles,'" adds a collector, referring to the way the company crams dozens of reptiles one on top of the other in storage bins at its warehouse.

Beard, who has bought and sold from Strictly over the years, offers a less venomous assessment. "They've been responsible for bringing in a tremendous amount of new things that breeders wouldn't otherwise have," he says. "There are a lot of great animals in collections and zoos because of these people."

However breeders view importers like Strictly, the two groups are intrinsically at odds on a purely economic level. Breeders depend on the rarity of a foreign country's native stock to drive up the prices of their captive-born offspring, while importers depend on the availability (legal or otherwise) of foreign-born animals. Under CITES, Australia, for instance, has long been closed to all wildlife exports, rare and common alike, which benefits breeders by driving prices through the roof for captive-bred species tracing their lineage to an Australian born great-grandparent. Smuggling, or a change in import-export regulations (which are constantly evolving), can alter price structures dramatically, enriching smugglers -- they buy cheap from impoverished natives -- while driving breeders out of business.

"Importers screw with breeders," says Ron St. Pierre, a well-known Loxahatchee breeder of snakes and lizards, who has perfected a bright red boa mutation he calls a blood boa. "I was breeding rhino iguanas, which are endangered and really rare, and people started smuggling them in. And all of a sudden they are all over the place and they are selling them for a third of what I'm producing them for."

It was one such attempt to dominate the market in a single species in 1997 that led to Strictly's downfall. Special Agent Bepler began investigating the company more than five years ago, after its name kept coming up when reptile-toting travelers were arrested at Miami International Airport. Though the amateur smugglers told investigators they intended to unload their animals at Strictly, there was never any evidence tying them directly to the company.

Among those arrested as Strictly suppliers was Thomas Hough, a missionary from Peru caught at the airport in February 1995 with a suitcase full of live snakes -- 13 red-tailed boas and a green anaconda he had collected in the Amazon rain forest where he worked with the Shipibo Indians. Hough told investigators he had sold reptiles to Strictly in the past and knew of other missionaries who had smuggled snakes out of Peru. Other smugglers with suspected connections to Strictly included Mauricio Coronel, an Argentine spider-expert caught in 1993 toting $25,000 worth of snakes, spiders, frogs, and tortoises; and Manuel Frade, arrested coming off a flight from Venezuela in 1994 when inspectors noticed the jeans in his suitcase were squirming -- he had stuffed 14 young boas inside his pant legs. "Mike would take everything," says Bepler. "He was known as a guy who would pay clean, take big loads, and not ask any questions. He would take everything so you wouldn't give it to somebody else. He dominated the field by having what no one else had."

Bepler says a lot of obviously smuggled species wound up on Strictly's price list. "I'd get competitors calling me up and saying, 'How the hell did he get hold of that,'" he says. "When I'd ask Mike about the animals, he would just look me in the eye, and I would kind of feel like he was laughing at me. He'd been getting away with smuggling for so long that he believed nothing could ever happen to him. Unfortunately once the animal's in the country, it's nearly impossible to prove where it came from."

The break Bepler had been waiting for came in late 1995, when Dutch police investigating reptile smuggling through the Netherlands notified the U.S. Department of Justice that they had wiretapped conversations involving an American reptile importer named Michael Van Nostrand. The intercepted phone calls revealed a complex multinational plot to launder through Europe frilled dragons from Indonesia, lizards that, when threatened, flare the enormous frilled flap around their heads Jurassic Park-style. (The lizard was in fact used as the model for the spitting dinosaur featured in Steven Spielberg's movie). At the time the creatures, captive-bred in limited numbers, were selling for as much as $800 apiece. (They now sell for less than half that price.) The plot involved a company named Hasco, a Strictly supplier that is one of the largest exporters in Southeast Asia. Hasco would ship the lizards to middlemen in the Netherlands who would relabel the shipments as captive-bred in Europe and then forward them to Van Nostrand in Florida. Court documents accuse him of designing the plot in order to corner the market in frilled dragons.

After a two-year investigation spurred by the Dutch tip, Van Nostrand pleaded guilty in October 1997 to reptile-smuggling charges and was ordered to spend eight months in prison and to pay nearly $250,000 to the World Wildlife Fund for preservation efforts in the Lorentz Nature Reserve on Irian Jaya, home to the Indonesian frilled dragon. He avoided harsher penalties by following the example of his father, an ex-con and former federal witness who helped put one of Miami's biggest drug traffickers away in the late '80s. The junior Van Nostrand, in this case the big fish, saved himself by helping federal prosecutors build cases against a string of low-level smuggling associates -- men like Dwayne Cunningham of Pembroke Pines and Robert Lawracy of West Palm Beach. The pair of cruise-ship workers -- Lawracy was a dive master, Cunningham an onboard entertainer -- face trial later this month on charges they smuggled Caribbean reptiles, including red-footed tortoises stolen from a zoo on the island of CuraƧao and prized Exuma Island rock iguanas snatched from their Bahamas habitat with noose poles, for sale to Van Nostrand and Central Florida importer Tom Crutchfield.

A full decade before Mike Van Nostrand went to jail, his father, Ray, had been in the less enviable position of being the little fish ratting out the big fish, in this case a brutal drug trafficker named Mario Tabraue, who was believed to have dismembered both his ex-wife and a federal informant. Ray, far more of a reptile aficionado than his oldest son -- he got his start in the reptile business working at a pet shop near the Bronx Zoo in the '60s -- spent much of the '80s managing the reptile portion of Zoological Imports in Miami, Tabraue's exotic-animal import business. The company, largely a front for marijuana and cocaine trafficking, brought in enormous quantities of drugs, along with a zoo's worth of wild creatures, including monkeys, tigers, and giraffes. When FBI agents shut down Tabraue's operation in 1987, concluding an investigation dubbed "Operation Cobra," Van Nostrand helped the government build the case against his boss. Tabraue got 100 years. Van Nostrand got one.

This was neither the first nor the last time the drug trade and the wildlife business have crossed paths. A study conducted five years ago by the Endangered Species Project, a San Francisco nonprofit, found that more than two-thirds of the cocaine seized in 1993 involved wildlife imports. That same year Miami customs inspectors, concluding "Operation Cocaine Constrictor," nabbed a shipment of 305 boa constrictors with unusually large bulges in their bellies. The snakes, it was discovered, had had cocaine-filled condoms stuffed up their rectums. Only 63 survived.

"The source countries for a lot of endangered species are often the same as for drugs," explains Sam LaBudde, one of the authors of the 1994 Endangered Species Project report. "There is a logistical reason why drugs and animals are lumped together. It's very easy to get wildlife products into the country. If you're shipping something that says it's full of snakes it's easy to put in a false bottom filled with cocaine. We found there was a 5 percent chance of wildlife being inspected by customs, and if you are shipping drugs and rare animals together, you're making money on both ends."

While Ray was in prison, 21-year-old Mike Van Nostrand, intent on putting his father's import connections to good use, started Strictly Reptiles in a small storefront in Davie. The ambitious young heir to his father's reptile business turned out to be a shrewd entrepreneur with a good head for business, and the company quickly flourished. What part smuggling paid in Van Nostrand's success is unclear, but prosecutors say it was substantial. "The illegal trade tends to be the most lucrative," says Tom Watts-Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor who worked the younger Van Nostrand's case. "The profit margins are far greater."

In the decade Van Nostrand spent building Strictly Reptiles into one of the largest import and wholesale operations in the country, he bought reptiles from more than a dozen people later charged with smuggling, among them a number of individuals also connected to the second largest importer in Florida, Tom Crutchfield of Bushnell. Prosecutors say Crutchfield, who pled guilty to a long list of smuggling charges early last month, after being expelled from the Central American country of Belize, isn't likely to get off as easily as Van Nostrand. The importer was convicted of reptile smuggling in 1992 for bringing in endangered Fiji banded iguanas and added evasion to the latest round of charges when he fled the country in the spring of 1997. Prior to going to work for Norwegian Cruise Lines, accused smuggler Dwayne Cunningham was a manager at Crutchfield's reptile business. According to court documents between 1992 and 1996, Cunningham, working with former San Diego pet shop owner Robert Lawracy and a pair of German reptile-smugglers from Frankfurt, sold contraband animals -- more than 200 tortoises, three dozen iguanas, and 75 boa constrictors -- to both Crutchfield and Van Nostrand. Many of those animals wound up for sale at Van Nostrand's booth at the 1995 International Reptile Expo, the largest reptile show in the world, held every August in Orlando.

Also implicated in the Crutchfield case is a man Fish and Wildlife claims is the world's biggest dealer in endangered animals, a Malaysian businessman named Anson Wong, who had evaded U.S. law enforcement for years by, government sources say, operating with the tacit approval of the Malaysian government and avoiding countries with extradition treaties with the United States. Wong, one of the principal targets in a four-year government sting dubbed "Operation Chameleon," was picked up last September in Mexico City and transported to San Francisco to stand trial, charged with smuggling -- in large legal shipments and by using Federal Express -- more than 300 illegal animals valued at nearly half a million dollars.

Fish and Wildlife agents nailed the wily smuggler -- he had eluded them for almost six years -- by setting up a phony wildlife business near San Francisco called PacRim Enterprises, which was purportedly interested in purchasing three of the world's most endangered creatures: Komodo dragons from Indonesia, plowshare tortoises from Madagascar (allegedly stolen from a breeding project on the island), and tuataras (lizardlike animals) from New Zealand. These rare animals have an estimated black-market value as high as $30,000 apiece. Wong was arrested after he flew to Mexico City for a meeting with agents posing as PacRim representatives. Although Van Nostrand was never charged in connection with Wong's illegal activities, government sources say the two had done business together over the years.

Mike Van Nostrand has thus far been the biggest South Florida target to fall prey to what those in the reptile trade say has been a marked increase in government scrutiny, but he was not the first local importer to topple. Retired Deerfield Beach importer Rian Gittman was arrested two years before federal agents came knocking on the doors of his mentor's warehouse.

Gittman, an adrenaline junkie and former loan collector from Queens who used his fists to extract money from deadbeats, is now a self-proclaimed "Jesus freak." At a Denny's down the street from Underground Reptiles, his Deerfield shop, he polishes off a slice of chocolate pie while recalling his rapid rise as a reptile importer. He wears a big smile and a maroon T-shirt bearing a silhouette of Jesus Christ with the words CEO JC Sportswear. "It was the early '90s," he recalls. "I sat in Mike and Ray's office and I said, 'Man, Fish and Wildlife will have to smack me right out of the sky, because right now I'm a meteorite.' I wanted to smuggle as many animals as I could, as much as I could. As far as I was concerned, whatever it was I wanted to get it in, I didn't care. I didn't know anybody who had real trouble. I figured if I get caught, what are you going to do -- slap me on the wrist, make me pay a fine? I had no idea what federal court was about."

Gittman, already an amateur snake collector, had moved to South Florida from New York when he was in his early twenties, his departure hastened by a brush with death in which a hired killer stuck a revolver in his mouth and then opted to spare his life. After working a series of odd jobs, he met Mike and Ray Van Nostrand in 1990. Someone had recommended Strictly Reptiles as a good place to unload the snakes he had started collecting from the tall grasses of the Everglades. "The first time I went down there, I sold them some stuff, and they helped me package my first shipment that I sent to another guy," recalls Gittman. Around that same time, Gittman met a wild Australian reptile smuggler named Euan Edwards, a scruffy adventurer with a backpack on his back and no shoes on his feet. Edwards became Gittman's first employee.

Under the tutelage of Mike and Ray Van Nostrand -- for a while Gittman says he rented a bathroom as an office at the Strictly warehouse -- Gittman acquired enough knowledge, of both the legal and illegal trades, to strike out on his own. In 1994 he opened the Reptile Service, his own reptile import business in Deerfield Beach and with Edwards' help began bringing in thousands of snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises. Edwards became Gittman's globetrotter, braving malaria, dysentery, and Third World wars in order to track down suppliers and teach them how to properly pack shipments, both legal and illegal. His duties also included making sure payoffs -- for securing legitimate export permits -- made their way into the hands of the right foreign government officials. "In this country we think of payoffs as illegal," says Gittman. "But in other countries it's just the way they do business. Now you can't have an American guy go pay off a guy, but you give money to an Egyptian and he gives the money to another Egyptian and all of a sudden you've got your permits. That's the live-animal business; that's the way it goes."

Mike Ellard, owner of Burgundy Reptiles in Fort Myers, takes government payoffs one step further. Traveling on his own, he visits countries that are closed to exports under CITES and "lobbies" government officials to allow him to start sending out the first legal shipments of a given species. "You tell them how much you want to take out and that you are not going to be detrimental to the population," says Ellard, adding that many countries are arbitrarily closed to live-animal exports, even when a given species may not be endangered. "Paraguay was closed, and I got the first shipments out last year. The only problem is that, once you open a place up, within six or eight months, everybody's jumped in."

Gittman and Edwards rarely bothered waiting for a country to open up before sending out protected animals. Instead they devised ingenious new ways to get contraband reptiles past customs, including constructing false bottoms in crates of legitimate shipments and, over the course of a year's worth of mislabeled shipments, bringing in many times their quota of legal animals. (Many legal species, including iguanas, have annual import caps.) One year, for instance, Gittman brought in almost 200,000 baby iguanas -- they come in bags of 100 -- exceeding his 40,000 cap almost five times and in the process undercutting competitors who comply with shipping restrictions.

Along with smuggling, Gittman, who had invested in an iguana farm in El Salvador, discovered another, less dangerous means of increasing his profit margins: naming his own species. "I was getting in these blue iguanas," he recalls. "I changed the name. Instead of iguanas, I called them Blue Jewels, and I charged $2 more for each iguana. It worked. Every once in a while, we'd get a batch of iguanas that were electric blue because maybe the breeder fed them different food or something, and so we'd call them Electric Blue and sell them for $20 each."

In the end none of those schemes really mattered. "Rule number one on the street is you can't beat the government," says Gittman of the federal investigation that led to his downfall. "You can't win. They have too much money; they print it."

In 1995 Gittman was charged with smuggling American alligators across state lines and bringing in East African pancake tortoises hidden in false bottoms in legal shipments. "Prosecutors were out for blood," says Gittman of the ten-year sentence they tried to stick him with. "I mean it was just animals." He got a year in jail and, not faring as well as his old friend Mike Van Nostrand, lost his import business altogether.

Today Gittman is strictly legal, doing brisk business handing out Bibles while hawking all sorts of herps in clean, well-lit cages at his retail stores in Deerfield and Coral Springs. "I'm a sold-out Jesus Freak now," he says. "I'm not interested in anything else, I don't have anything else I live for. I wake up in the morning and ask God what he has planned for me."

Mike Van Nostrand, on the other hand -- out of prison and working long hours to recoup his losses -- is still dealing in enormous quantities of live reptiles and amphibians, both imported and captive-bred. As a show of good faith, he helped the government put together a sting not long ago that nabbed a 22-year-old Slovenian trying to get his start as a tortoise smuggler by bringing in, stuffed in socks, 49 baby Hermann's tortoises from Eastern Europe and offering them to Strictly. The smuggler went to jail, Van Nostrand got his home confinement reduced, and the tortoises were banished north, to the Fish and Wildlife evidence compound.

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address: Jay _Cheshes@newtimesbpb.com

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/content/pr intVe rsion/129250  Feb. 4, 1999

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Carole's post at The Statesman re: circuses

Carole's post at The Statesman re: circuses

I didn't write this but it is the best argument for banning circuses that I have read: This issue is similar to some other thorny issues, however, in that many people will oppose the ban because they don't want to believe that circuses are necessarily cruel to animals. To support the ban, they would have to admit that the whole concept of capturing and
training wild animals for human entertainment and enrichment is, and always has been, wrong; and that they have been wrong for not doing everything they could to ban the practice decades ago. Who wants to admit to something like that?

Our advice to them: Deal with it.

Yes, we humans have been wrong all along, and this is a baby step toward making things right.

Those who don't want the ban will be quick to point to violent and illegal acts people have committed in the name of ending animal cruelty, and suggest that seeking to end animal cruelty somehow indicates that one condones such acts. That simply doesn't pass the common sense test, and those who bring such incidents into the discussion are essentially admitting that they can't come up with a reasonable defense for the way animals are treated in a circus setting. This shouldn't come as a surprise, because there is no reasonable defense for it.

Some local people will lose some money if the ban is passed. Circus people stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants and spend money in local stores. Our wise and resourceful officials can replace the circus with other events that don't cause us to support unconscionable acts toward beings who, because of human intervention, are no longer able to defend themselves.

Humans, with complete freedom of movement and superior reasoning capability, grow weary of "life on the road," and with good reason. Circus animals are caged and moved from town to town, forced to perform unnatural acts and then caged and moved to yet another town for yet another performance. The best efforts of the most kind- hearted people in the world cannot make this process humane. It is
cruel by its nature.

It's unlikely that the circus people think that what they're doing is inhumane. It's only when city after city after city closes its doors that they will ask, "Why?" and perhaps begin to have second thoughts about the way animals have to be treated if they are to provide money- making entertainment to humans.

When and if our society becomes truly civilized, such entertainment will be banned entirely.
7/15/2008 8:42 AM CDT

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

http://www.BigCatRescue.org MakeADifference@BigCatRescue.org

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:


This message contains information from Big Cat Rescue that may be
confidential or privileged. The information contained herein is intended
only for the eyes of the individual or entity named above. You are hereby
notified that any dissemination, distribution, disclosure, and/or copying of
the information contained in this communication is strictly prohibited. The
recipient should check this e-mail and any attachments for the presence of
viruses. Big Cat Rescue accepts no liability for any damage or loss caused
by any virus transmitted by this e-mail.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Big Cat Rescue in the Plain Dealer Reporter

Lions and tigers caged in Ohio now thriving in Tampa - Donna J. Miller's Animals in the News
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Donna Miller
Plain Dealer Reporter

Two lions and two tigers that spent years in cages in Central Ohio are living large at a sanctuary in Tampa. They arrived at Big Cat Rescue in October.

Listening to one of their caregivers, you can almost hear them purr. (You can at bigcat rescue.com.)

"I walked through the sanctuary at dusk today and they had just eaten," Carole Baskin said Tuesday. "Nikita and Simba were sacked out in the high grass.

"Joseph was roaring across the lake to Cameron, our other male lion, and Sasha was playfully stalking me, standing perfectly still when I looked at her, as if she thought being still made her invisible. It has been just great to see them relax and become who they really are."

But they are minus their claws and most of their teeth, which were pulled by the Ohio woman who used to own them, so she could make money letting people pose with them for photographs.

Ohio lacks an exotic-animal law that would have barred such animal abuse and risk to hu man life and limb. Our lawmakers clamored for such a law in the days after a black bear mauled an Ashtabula County woman two years ago, and promptly failed to act.

With 120 big cats still living in Ohio and many more bears, who's protecting them and their neighbors?


For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

http://www.BigCatRescue.org MakeADifference@BigCatRescue.org

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:


This message contains information from Big Cat Rescue that may be
confidential or privileged. The information contained herein is intended
only for the eyes of the individual or entity named above. You are hereby
notified that any dissemination, distribution, disclosure, and/or copying of
the information contained in this communication is strictly prohibited. The
recipient should check this e-mail and any attachments for the presence of
viruses. Big Cat Rescue accepts no liability for any damage or loss caused
by any virus transmitted by this e-mail.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Loose Serval Update

July  10, 2008 Atlanta, GA:  A serval was found wandering near 14th Street and Georgia Tech in mid-town Atlanta and picked up by Animal Services who said the problem is more prevalent than most people think.  Owning an exotic cat as a pet is illegal in GA unless it is being used for "education" so when exotic cats escape their owners rarely come forward.  Big Cat Rescue received a report from a neighbor saying that the owner had become fearful of the cat as he matured and turned him loose on purpose.  The cat, dubbed Ozzie, has been placed in a licensed facility.  GA has no accredited sanctuaries, so that probably wasn't a happy ending for the cat.

More stories like this here:


For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

http://www.BigCatRescue.org MakeADifference@BigCatRescue.org

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:


This message contains information from Big Cat Rescue that may be
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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lions on the Menu. Send a letter now!

Big Cats on the Menu

Lions on the menu in FloridaThis page was devoted primarily to pending changes in Florida's captive wild animal rules, but even if you are not from Florida, this could make a big difference where you live because Florida currently produces more big cats than any other state.  These cats are hauled all over the country, and sometimes even to foreign countries where people are not as concerned with protecting animals. 


When the cats cats can no longer be used to support their owners they are often dumped along the way;  sometimes into the hands of unwitting exotic pet owners, sometimes they are served up in restaurants and sometimes they are dumped into the wild with no survival skills.  Ending the trafficking of exotic cats in Florida will greatly reduce the number of these cats who end up suffering in all parts of the world. 


The comment period on these proposed rules closed at 5PM on July 4, 2008, but this sort of egregious behavior just has to stop. 


Please mail or email your comments about lions being served on the menu in Florida to the following:


FL Wildlife Conservation Commission

c/o Captain Linda Harrison

620 S. Meridian Street 

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600



Spoto's Steak Joint
owner/chef   Jim Stewart

1280 Main St

Dunedin, FL 34698

(727) 734-0008


St. Pete Times Editor

490 First Avenue South

St. Petersburg, FL 33701


(727) 893-8111


Reporter Tamara El-Khoury


490 First Avenue South

St. Petersburg, FL 33701


(727) 445-4181
Contact your lawmaker by your zip code HERE  


This story ran July 5, 2008 on the cover of the Tampa Bay Times and was a half page cover story in the Clearwater Times which are all part of the St. Pete Times.

Care for a Tasty Lion Chop?

By: Tamara El-Khoury

DUNEDIN — I've sampled snails in France, pig's ear in Brazil and stuffed lamb intestines in Lebanon. But I experienced my most exotic culinary adventure last week in Dunedin, FL at Spoto's Steak Joint.

A reader had called, pointing out that the restaurant's marquee advertised African lion, rattlesnake, bison, elk and boar.

Along with summer intern Jackie Alexander, I was sent to try it out. And, as it happens, I was a good choice for the assignment. As a Lebanese-American I know what it's like to eat "different'' foods. I was the kid eating a brie and pita bread sandwich or stuffed grape leaves for lunch.

I learned not to judge foods until I had tasted them. Having done just that at Spoto's, here's my verdict:

Eats LionsThe elk was fabulous.

The kangaroo sweet.

The lion tasted a bit like ribs.

(We'll get to the rattlesnake later.)

We started with the Game Sampler for $25.95, which comes with generous helpings of kangaroo, boar and rattlesnake. But we substituted elk for the snake. The meal was served with steamed asparagus and roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

We also ordered the South African Lion Chop dish, a 14-ounce lion rib chop, char grilled for $48.

Spoto's owner and chef Jim Stewart said all his game is farm raised and USDA approved. The kangaroo is from Australia and the lion is farm raised in South Africa and processed in Colorado. The snake and boar come from Texas and the elk comes from Alaska, Canada or New Zealand.

Stewart has built a niche out of serving unusual meats. Previous menus have included ostrich, bear and python. He sends e-mails to 1,000 patrons when he serves a new type of game.

"Gosh, where else can you go and get barbecue prime ribs, steak … duck and lion or bear or whatever at any given time?" he said. "We've kind of built ourselves a little name for that, and it's caught on."

After munching on chicken liver pate, warm baguettes and salad, our dinners arrived. We were both surprised.

"It looks like regular food," Jackie said.

First, I tried the kangaroo. It was sweet and easy to chew, unlike any other meat I've tried. Then the elk, my favorite, which was so tender, Jackie commented it was better than filet mignon. The boar tasted a little heavier than roasted pork.

Finally, it was time to try the lion. The meat was less tender than the others and came with part of the bone, making it difficult to cut. The taste is difficult to describe, sort of a cross between pork chops and ribs.

Pleased with our delicious meal, Jackie and I were ready to wrap things up when photographer Joseph Garnett noted that we had not tried the rattlesnake.

No, I said.

Snakes scare me. I didn't want one near my mouth. Then Joseph used the "w" word — wimp. So I ordered a small side of snake. I asked that it please not look like snake.

"Snake, snake!" a child chanted in the background.

I made small talk to hide my nervousness, and when the dish arrived, my heart was pounding. It looked like snake. Bones poked out through the meat. Before I could panic, Stewart handed me a fork. I closed my eyes and dug in.

The meat was chewy and had a bland taste, kind of like turkey. It was dressed in a light barbecue sauce that had a little kick to it. If I hadn't psyched myself out, I might have taken another bite.


If you are wondering how it is that lions end up on the menu then you may be interested to know that despite many baby lions being bred in the US for photo ops and petting booths, they very rarely end up in need of rescue, like tigers do.  Lions are not a protected species and can end up in canned hunts.  We contacted a man in So. Africa and asked him if there was any connection between the pay-to-play-with-lions activities that are such popular tourist attractions in Africa and this was his response:

You are quite correct that such lion meat can only have come from the
canned lion hunting industry in South Africa. All captive lion
breeders in SA sell their progeny for hunting
because it is not only
the only market for them, but a very lucrative one. And they are
always looking for 'add-ons' whereby they can commercially exploit
another aspect of canned lion breeding. The current one is cub-
petting, whereby the cute and cuddly stage is exploited before the
animal is old enough to be hunted. In this way they can externalise the cost of rearing the victim. And now lion meat is being marketed to make canned lion breeding ever more profitable.

We have video footage of canned lion hunts in SA and they are part of
an audio-visual presentation on DVD which details the cruelty, and
offers insight into how and why canned hunting is so big in SA. It
eems to us that we really need to expose the link between this type
f restaurant and the horrific cruelty at every stage of the lions
lives once caught up in this awful industry. Let us try to turn this
report to advantage, and to use it to raise public awareness in
Florida/USA so that ethical customers will know to boycott such restaurants. Ideally there should be protests outside the restaurant to attract publicity.

Kind regards,

Chris Mercer

Campaign against Canned Hunting


PO Box 356 Wilderness

6560 South Africa

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act



2d Session

H. R. 6311

To prevent the introduction and establishment of nonnative wildlife species that negatively impact the economy, environment, or human or animal species' health, and for other purposes.


June 19, 2008

Ms. BORDALLO (for herself, Mr. HASTINGS of Florida, Mr. ABERCROMBIE, Mr. KILDEE, Mr. KLEIN of Florida, Ms. MCCOLLUM of Minnesota, and Mr. KIND) introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources


To prevent the introduction and establishment of nonnative wildlife species that negatively impact the economy, environment, or human or animal species' health, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as the `Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act'.


The purpose of this Act is to establish a risk assessment process to prevent the introduction into, and establishment in, the United States of nonnative wildlife species that will cause or are likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human or animal species' health.


(a) In General- The Secretary of the Interior, acting through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, shall promulgate regulations that establish a process for assessing the risk of all nonnative wildlife species proposed for importation into the United States, other than nonnative wildlife species that are included in the list of approved species issued under section 4.

(b) Factors To Be Considered- Regulations under this section shall provide that in assessing the risk of a nonnative wildlife species the Secretary shall consider at a minimum--

(1) the identity of the organism to the species level, including to the extent possible more specific information on its subspecies and genetic identity;

(2) the geographic source of the species and the conditions under which it was captured or bred;

(3) whether the species has established or spread, or caused harm to the economy or the environment or the health of humans or of wildlife, in ecosystems that are similar to those in the United States but are located outside the United States;

(4) the likelihood that environmental conditions suitable for the establishment or spread of the species exist anywhere in the United States;

(5) the likelihood of establishment of the species in the United States;

(6) the likelihood of spread of the species in the United States;

(7) the likelihood that the species would harm wildlife resources in the United States;

(8) the likelihood that the species would harm rare, threatened, or endangered species in the United States;

(9) the likelihood that the species would harm habitats or ecosystems in the United States;

(10) the likelihood that pathogenic species, parasitic species, or free-living species may accompany the species proposed for importation; and

(11) other factors important to the risks associated with the species.

(c) Consultation- In promulgating the regulations, the Secretary shall consult with States, Indian tribes, other stakeholders, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, and the Invasive Species Council.

(d) Transparency- The Secretary shall ensure that the risk assessment process established by the regulations is scientifically credible and is consistent with sections 4 and 5.

(e) Deadlines- The Secretary shall--

(1) propose regulations under subsection (a) and an initial list under section 4(b), by not later than 2 years after the date of the enactment of this Act;

(2) publish in the Federal Register final regulations under subsection (a), an initial list under section 4(b), and a notice of the prohibitions under this Act, by not later than 30 days before the date on which the Secretary begins assessing risk under the regulations; and

(3) begin assessing risk under the regulations by not later than 37 months after the date of the enactment of this Act.

(f) Animals Imported Prior to Prohibition of Importation- This Act and regulations issued under this Act shall not interfere with the ability of any person to possess an individual animal of a species that was imported legally, even if such species is later prohibited from being imported under the regulations issued under this Act.


(a) Requirement To Issue List-

(1) IN GENERAL- Not later than 36 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register a list of nonnative wildlife species approved for importation.

(2) EXCLUSION OF CERTAIN SPECIES- The Secretary shall not include in the list--

(A) any species included in the list of prohibited species under section 5; or

(B) any species, the importation of which is prohibited by any other law or regulation.

(3) REVISION- The Secretary may revise the list issued under this subsection.

(b) Initial List-

(1) IN GENERAL- The Secretary shall include in the initial list under this section nonnative wildlife species that the Secretary finds--

(A) based on the best scientific and commercial data available, are not harmful to the United States' economy, the environment, or human or other animal species' health; or

(B) may be harmful in some respects, but already are so widespread in the United States that future import prohibitions or restrictions would have no practical utility.


(A) shall, by not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, publish in the Federal Register and make available on the Internet a request for submission, by persons that import or that intend to import nonnative wildlife species, of proposals of nonnative wildlife species to be included in the initial list under this subsection and supporting documentation for such proposals;

(B) shall accept such proposals for 10 months after the date the Secretary publishes the request for submissions; and

(C) may propose a nonnative wildlife species for inclusion in the list.

(3) PUBLIC NOTICE AND COMMENT- Before issuing the initial list under this subsection, the Secretary shall--

(A) publish in the Federal Register and make available on the Internet the proposed initial list; and

(B) provide for, a period of not less than 60 days, an opportunity to submit public comments on the proposed list.

(4) DEADLINE- The Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register and make available on the Internet an initial list under this subsection.

(c) Proposal for Inclusion on the Approved List-

(1) REQUEST FOR INFORMATION- After publication of the list under this section, upon receipt of a proposal for, or proposing, inclusion of a nonnative wildlife species on the list (including a request to import such a species that is not on the list published under this section and section 5, respectively), the Secretary shall provide notice of the proposal and an opportunity to comment to the head of each agency and each interested person with information relevant to the process for assessing the risk established under section 3.

(2) DETERMINATION- The Secretary shall make one of the following determinations regarding such a proposal in a reasonable period of time and in accordance with the factors to be considered under section 3(b):

(A) The nonnative wildlife species is approved for importation, and is added to the list of approved species under this section.

(B) The nonnative wildlife species is not approved for importation, unless permitted under section 7.

(3) TREATMENT OF UNAPPROVED SPECIES- If the Secretary makes a determination under paragraph (2)(B) that a nonnative wildlife species is not approved for importation, the Secretary shall--

(A) include the nonnative wildlife species on the list of unapproved species under section 5; or

(B) request the person who submitted a proposal for which the determination is made to submit additional information, tests, or data needed to make a definitive determination under this section.

(d) Notice of Determination- The Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register and make available on the Internet or other appropriate means, the determinations made with respect to proposals considered under this section.


(a) Requirement To Issue List-

(1) IN GENERAL- The Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register a list of nonnative wildlife species that are prohibited or restricted from entering the United States.

(2) INCLUDED SPECIES- The list under this subsection shall include--

(A) those species listed by Federal regulation as injurious wildlife under section 42 of title 18, United States Code, as of the date of enactment of this Act; and

(B) any other species the Secretary has determined under section 4(c) is not approved for importation.

(b) Petition Process To Add or Remove Species From Unapproved List-

(1) IN GENERAL- Any person may petition the Secretary to add to or remove from the list under this section any nonnative wildlife species, consistent with regulations established under this Act.

(2) NOTICE- The Secretary shall publish notice of the petition and provide an opportunity for public comment.

(3) ACTION ON PETITION- The Secretary shall--

(A) determine whether or not to add or remove the nonnative wildlife species from the list, as applicable, pursuant to the petition, within a reasonable time and based on information that is provided by the petition or otherwise readily available;

(B) notify the petitioner of such determination; and

(C) publish such determination in the Federal Register.

(c) Emergency Authority and Temporary Prohibition-

(1) IN GENERAL- If the Secretary determines that an emergency exists because a nonnative wildlife species in the United States poses a serious threat of harm to the United States economy, the environment, or human or animal species' health, the Secretary may temporarily place the nonnative wildlife species on the list of unapproved species.

(2) DETERMINATION- The Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register and make available to the public through the Internet or other appropriate means a final determination of whether to maintain the nonnative wildlife species on the list of unapproved species, within 180 days after temporarily adding the nonnative wildlife species to such list.


(a) Prohibitions- No person shall--

(1) import into the United States any nonnative wildlife species or viable eggs of such species that is not included in the list of approved species issued under section 4, except as authorized by a permit under section 7;

(2) violate any term or condition of a permit issued under section 7;

(3) knowingly possess (except as provided in section 3(f)), sell or offer to sell, purchase or offer to purchase, or barter for or offer to barter for, any nonnative wildlife species that is prohibited from being imported under paragraph (1), any descendants of such a species, or viable eggs of such a species;

(4) knowingly release any nonnative wildlife species imported in violation of paragraph (1), or any viable eggs or descendants of such a species;

(5) knowingly breed any nonnative wildlife species imported in violation of paragraph (1), or provide any such species to others for breeding purposes; or

(6) knowingly sell or offer to sell, purchase or offer to purchase, barter or offer to barter for or offer to barter for, release, or breed any nonnative wildlife species referred to in section 3(f).

(b) Penalties and Enforcement- Any person who violates subsection (a) of this section shall be subject to the civil penalties and criminal penalties described in section 4 of the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981 (16 U.S.C. 3373). Sections 4(b), 4(e), 5, and 6 of that Act shall apply to such a violation in the same manner as they apply to a violation of that Act.

(c) Limitation on Application- Subsection (a) shall not apply to any action by law enforcement personnel engaged in enforcement of this section.

(d) Effective Date- This section shall take effect 37 months after the date of the enactment of this Act.


The Secretary may issue a permit authorizing importation otherwise prohibited by section 6(a)(1) for educational, scientific research, or accredited zoological or aquarium display purposes.


(a) In General- The Secretary shall establish and collect a fee to recover, to the maximum extent practicable, costs of assessing risk of nonnative wildlife species under the regulations issued under section 3.

(b) Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Fund-

(1) ESTABLISHMENT- There is established in the Treasury a separate account which shall be known as the Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Fund.

(2) CONTENTS- There shall be deposited into the account amounts received by the United States as fees under this section.

(3) USE- Amounts in the account shall be available to the Secretary, subject to the availability of appropriations, for the purposes of implementing this Act.


Nonnative wildlife species included in the list of approved species issued under section 4 shall be considered and treated as nonmailable matter under section 3015 of title 39, United States Code.


(a) In General- Nothing in this Act preempts or otherwise affects the application of any State law that establishes stricter requirements for importation, possession, sale, purchase, release, or breeding of, or bartering for, any nonnative wildlife species, except to the extent that State law is inconsistent with this Act.

(b) Limitation on Application of Prohibitions and Penalties To Prevent Release- The Secretary may limit the application of any provision of section 6 to facilitate implementation of any State program that encourages voluntary surrender to a State of nonnative wildlife species, if the Secretary determines that such limitation will prevent release of such species.


For the purposes of this Act:

(1) AQUATIC NUISANCE SPECIES TASK FORCE- The term `Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force' means the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force established under section 1201 of the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990 (16 U.S.C. 4702).

(2) INVASIVE SPECIES COUNCIL- The term `Invasive Species Council' means the Invasive Species Council established by Executive Order 13112 on February 8, 1999 (64 Fed. Reg. 6183).

(3) NATIVE SPECIES- The term `native species' means a species that historically occurred or currently occurs in the United States, other than as a result of an introduction by humans.

(4) NONNATIVE WILDLIFE SPECIES- The term `nonnative wildlife species'--

(A) except as provided in subparagraph (C), means any species of animal that is not a native species, whether or not raised in captivity;

(B) except as provided in subparagraph (C), includes--

(i) any such species of mammal, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, insect, mollusk and crustacean, arthropod, coelenterate, or other invertebrate, and

(ii) any egg or offspring thereof; and

(C) does not include any species specifically defined or regulated as a plant pest under the Plant Protection Act (7 U.S.C. 7701 et seq.) or as a threat to livestock or poultry under the Animal Health Protection Act (7 U.S.C. 8301 et seq.).

(5) SECRETARY- The term `Secretary' means the Secretary of the Interior.

(6) STATE- The term `State' means any State of the United States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

(7) UNITED STATES- The term `United States', when used in a geographic sense, means any State of the United States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, any possession of the United States, and any waters within the jurisdiction of the United States.



For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

http://www.BigCatRescue.org MakeADifference@BigCatRescue.org

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:


This message contains information from Big Cat Rescue that may be
confidential or privileged. The information contained herein is intended
only for the eyes of the individual or entity named above. You are hereby
notified that any dissemination, distribution, disclosure, and/or copying of
the information contained in this communication is strictly prohibited. The
recipient should check this e-mail and any attachments for the presence of
viruses. Big Cat Rescue accepts no liability for any damage or loss caused
by any virus transmitted by this e-mail.