Animal Apathy

Is the system turning a blind eye to reptile trafficking?

It was an itchy night--hot, tense and black as tar. And in that anxious darkness, two Arizona game officers patiently watched a Toyota truck creeping toward them along a deserted highway south of town. The year was 2003; the month was August, and the truck belonged to one Edward Michael Chapman, a Florida commercial reptile collector with rather slimy procurement practices.

Chapman's truck crawled past the officers and eventually disappeared. So they sat. They checked their watches. They sat some more. And sure enough, about 40 minutes later, they saw headlights bouncing in the distance. It was Chapman, slowly retracing his path. But this time, the would-be poacher had a little surprise awaiting him.

Between Chapman's going and coming, Officer Hans Koenig had plopped a stoic Gila monster out on the pavement. This was no ordinary reptile, however: The monster was a living decoy, with a tracking microchip tucked under the animal's leathery skin.

Hidden from view, the officers waited and watched as Chapman stopped. A truck door opened, and then it closed. The Gila monster was gone--and Chapman's tail lights were again fading into night. Now the chase was on.

Later, in Santa Cruz County Justice Court, Chapman was convicted of taking a Gila monster out of season and trying to keep it.

His punishment? Fines and restitution totaling $569.

On the market, prime Gila monsters can fetch upwards of $2,000.

What's wrong with this picture? That question keeps Arizona Game and Fish Department cops like Koenig scratching their heads. After busting their butts to bring down Chapman, the man got a laughable fine. It sure can seem like wasted adrenaline.

"What are these judges thinking?" Koenig says. "I really don't know."

As it turns out, cases like Chapman's are not the exception; they're the rule. According to AGF officers, such poachers of herpetofauna--reptiles and amphibians--rarely face painful fines or serious jail time. Instead, they just continue nourishing a lucrative black market fed by Arizona's dwindling wildlife.

It's a dismal situation, and for guys like Koenig, discouraging as hell. Ask, and he'll rattle off the losers who walked. There's Jerry and Trenton Hammond, a father-and-son team from Alabama. The Hammonds were caught with nine protected reptiles. Facing federal charges, Jerry was fined $825, his son $525. Koenig says they'd already sold five of their illegal reptiles--and cleared a cool $4,500.

Then there was the collaboration with Tucson wildlife biologist Dave Prival, who works with protected species. Prival has spent a diligent decade monitoring animals like the twin-spotted rattlesnake in the Chiricahua Mountains. Imagine his surprise when a snake from his project surfaced for sale in South Carolina, its research markings still intact.

After plenty of elbow grease, a Game and Fish effort spearheaded by Koenig finally nailed a dealer named Adam Stewart. Mr. Stewart owns a business called Living Earth Reptiles, in the tiny South Carolina burg of Belton. He was offering the rattler for a bundle.

Stewart received a $250 fine. That kills Koenig.

"It was even in the agent's report that (Stewart) had already made $4,500" on Arizona animals, says the officer.

Attempts to contact Stewart for comment were unsuccessful; his business telephone seems to have been disconnected.

Under federal law, it's a violation to cross state lines with animals that are restricted in other states. Under Arizona law, many reptile species are illegal to keep without a license, and others may be collected only during certain months. But laws haven't slowed the bustling trade in native reptiles.

While counting these animals in the wild is tough, herpetologists are well aware of drastic declines. In Arizona, pressure from development and drought have hit herp populations hard. That's only exacerbated by the illegal takings.

In an interview with British public radio, noted American herpetologist Whit Gibbons crystallized scientists' concern. "Habitat loss and degradation is a major (crisis) in virtually every country," Gibbons told the BBC. "Reptiles cannot live in a shopping center, and so as we develop, we need to do this in a more prudent fashion and consider our wildlife."

Nowhere is that point more salient than in booming Arizona. Which raises the query: Why aren't prosecutors and courts getting tougher on reptile thieves? Turns out that's a pretty complicated question.

"I don't think county attorneys are prosecuting," Koenig says. And the courts "aren't levying the fines like they should. I don't think they consider the violations to be significant."

At press time, Pima County Justice Court was unable to cite and compare specific wildlife decisions.

But Kathleen Mayer, a deputy Pima County attorney, says her office simply doesn't see many wildlife cases coming its way. And that may signify an insipid chain reaction rippling through government.

It starts at the statehouse, says Mayer. "The Legislature has already determined that these aren't important (crimes) by virtue of the way they're defined." Under Arizona Revised Statutes, most unlawful reptile takings are adjudicated either as Class 2 misdemeanors, or Class 6 felonies for more serious offenses.

But "serious" can be a relative term. "Most judges could give a crap about a Class 6 felony," Mayer says. "That's the lowest kind of offense there is.

As a result, she says, wildlife officials may feel little motivation for steering cases her way. "This is a uniform problem across the country. Largely, the (judges) don't care. And if the bench doesn't care, it's hard to get some prosecutorial agency motivated."

Mayer's office has earned a reputation for fiercely prosecuting domestic animal-cruelty cases. But wildlife trafficking has yet to receive the propulsion of public outrage. "Frankly, to me, this is no different than animal cruelty," she says. "In my mind, these animals are subjected to the same kind of terrible treatment, and it's just money that's behind it."

And until the public gets mad, judges won't raise an eyebrow, she says. "They just reflect what society thinks about things."

Regardless, her office is ready to bust heads if Game and Fish officials bring more cases to its doorstep. Stopping wildlife poaching "is incumbent upon aggressive law enforcement," she says. "It's incumbent on offices like our own to bring these cases to the attention of the bench, and explain to public and to the bench why this important."

Mayer has no doubt in her own mind why it matters. "Because we've built on every inch of Gila monster habitat, it's a wonder there are any left to begin with," she says. "Then if you allow people to steal them, they're stealing part of the state's heritage--for which somebody ought to give a crap about."

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