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Posted by compaq on September 17, 2002 at 13:46:24:
September 17, 2002
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Health & Fitness
Authorities go after illegal reptile vendors at show
By Rukmini Callimachi Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on September 17, 2002
A yearlong investigation into illegal reptile trading ended in Streamwood this weekend, when 20 state and federal law enforcement agents descended upon a "reptile swap" Sunday morning at Lee Watson's farm on Schaumburg Road.
Fourteen of the reptile vendors at the show were arrested, said Illinois Conservation Police Investigator Michael Lyne, and at least three more arrests are pending. In addition, a total of 37 misdemeanor citations were issued.
Charges ranged from the possession of venomous snakes to the sale of baby turtles, banned by the Food and Drug Administration because they are known carriers of the salmonella bacteria.
The show, known as Lee Watson's Reptile Swap, takes place at Watsons' Crosswinds Farm, which is licensed as a zoo through the Department of Agriculture. Now in its 12th year, the swap is an institution in Illinois for exotic reptile collectors.
More than 50 vendors were exhibiting on Sunday, some having come from as far as Springfield.
Many of the vendors were conducting legal trades, said Lyne. But it was the blatantness of the illegal trading that prompted the raid, he said.
"We were conducting a yearlong investigation into the reptile trade - not just Lee Watson's swap, but illegal reptile trade anywhere in the state," said Lyne.
A December 2001 arrest in Will County in which 11 venomous snakes were seized - including the rare and highly poisonous monacled albino cobra - were traced back to the Streamwood swap, Lyne said.
Other arrests and tips from animal control agents began to point back to the Streamwood meet, which is held on the first Saturday and third Sunday of every month, he said.
"That was just one case," said Lyne of the Will County arrest. "But every case we've dealt with has pointed back to Lee Watson."
Watson, however, was not among the arrests made Sunday. He organizes the twice monthly events and makes his money from entry fees paid by visitors and vendor fees paid by the sellers.
Despite the raid Sunday, his shows have not been shut down.
Watson, a veteran of the reptile business whose wife received a citation Sunday for her bearded dragons, expressed shock and dismay at what he felt was the confrontational way in which the raid was handled.
"They all had guns and flak jackets, like they were ready for a shoot-out," said Watson. "They came in and made an announcement on our speaker system. They said, 'We have armed officers at every entrance of this exhibit.' Basically, people started wondering if it was a joke. But a lot of kids were frightened."
Seven years ago, Watson said, a similar raid was conducted by only a handful of agents. In that case, citations were issued to vendors who did not have the proper licenses for their animals.
"For what they were trying to do," said Watson, "they could have accomplished it with three or four officers. But there had to have been 20 on Sunday. It was complete overkill."
Lyne said that the number of agents was partially a reflection of the number of agencies involved in the raid - which included not just the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but also the Food and Drug Administration, the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Plainclothes officers arrived first and bought some baby turtles from vendors.
Then a second wave of officers came in and took positions by the doors of the exhibition hall. After the announcement was made on the hall's PA system, visitors were asked to leave single-file through one door, and their bags were examined. Meanwhile, the vendors were detained and searched.
Cars in the parking lot were also searched, said Lyne.
Lyne said that many of the vendors were selling legal items on their tabletops but were concealing the endangered or illegal species in containers beneath their tables.
One Waukegan man had "in excess of 600 baby and undersize turtles," said Lyne. "He was charged with not having a license, not keeping records, commercialization of the resources and being over the limit. He was the worst in the number of turtles - but there were many others."
Baby turtles, said Lyne, are a money-making venture.
"The vendors purchase them for 75 cents and then sell them for $5. That's a 400 percent mark-up. When your 5-year-old kid is standing there, and all he wants is that cute turtle, it's hard to say no."
Watson said that, although one person was caught with a venomous snake in the exhibition hall, that person was not a registered vendor, nor did he attempt to sell the snake.
But Lyne said that very behavior fits the suspected pattern.
Agents have thought all along, said Lyne, that illegal traders were using the Streamwood swap as a meeting ground - and as a place to create alliances before attempting a sale.
"We've had comments all along that there was an underground trade between dealers and people they knew and trusted at the fair with items that would be illegal to sell over the table. This is a place where they made those contacts," Lyne said.
A timber rattlesnake, outlawed under the Illinois Dangerous Animals Act, was found under the table of a 21-year-old Roselle resident.
Kathleen Polizzi, a Wonder Lake resident, said that her three teenage children were detained at the reptile show and their bags were searched. She was angry.
"My children were held against their will," she said. "They had no right to be searching spectators at the door. As if these children are going to grab animals and put them in their bags."
Reptile: Timber rattlesnake found