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Southern and Midwestern Freshwater Turtles
Star-Telegram, December 16, 2009

20,000 exotic animals -- and hundreds more dead ones -- seized at Arlington pet wholesaler
By Susan Schrock

ARLINGTON — Animal welfare workers removed more than 20,000 exotic animals from a north Arlington pet wholesaler Tuesday in what officials called one of the largest seizures of its kind.

Arlington Animal Services, along with the Humane Society of North Texas and the SPCA, raided U.S. Global Exotics in the Great Southwest Industrial District after federal authorities tipped city officials to inhumane conditions, officials said.

The federal authorities seized the company’s records and computers last week in a separate investigation. The nature of that investigation could not be learned Tuesday.

Hundreds of carcasses were found, and the smell of death inside the one-story building was overwhelming, workers said.

"Such a number of dead or dying animals I’ve never seen before," said Texas SPCA President James Bias, who has worked for animal welfare agencies in North Texas for years.

Because of overcrowding and a lack of food, some of the animals had started eating one another. Inside cardboard boxes, the workers found hundreds of dead turtles and lizards that had been packed more than a week earlier, according to their shipping labels.

"One of the most heartbreaking things I saw was hundreds of deceased iguanas. I stopped counting at 200," said Maura Davies, spokeswoman for the SPCA. "There were dozens more."

Among the animals that were still alive were turtles and lizards, a large variety of snakes, spiders and crabs, as well as kinkajous, sugar gliders, sloths, hedgehogs and prairie dogs, officials said. The animals, some quite valuable, were taken to undisclosed locations for care.

Multimillion-dollar outfit

Phone calls to the business were not returned Tuesday.

U.S. Global Exotics, in the 1000 block of Oakmead Drive, listed its owners as Jasen Shaw and Vanessa Shaw on its Web site. It is licensed with the U.S. Agriculture Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Texas Parks and Wildlife, according to the Web site, which was taken down Tuesday afternoon. The company sold animals online, primarily to pet shops, animal officials said. A sign on the door read: "Not open to the public. No wholesale walk in sales at any time."

"This wasn’t a pet shop. This was a multimillion-dollar business," said Jay Sabatucci, Arlington Animal Services manager. "Some of these animals are very beautiful. I could see why someone would want them in their home or office to look at."

The local animal agencies brought in veterinarians and experts from around the world to assess the animals’ health and provide appropriate food and shelter.

A court hearing will be scheduled within 10 days to determine who gets custody of the animals, Sabatucci said.

No one was arrested Tuesday, but Arlington is conducting an animal cruelty investigation that could result in felony charges.

"I do believe we have a very good case," Sabatucci said.

Bias estimated that it would cost $100,000 for the agencies to provide temporary care for the animals. That’s bad news in a year when donations are already down and the number of animals in need is up because of the recession, he said.

Finding homes for the animals will also be a challenge if a judge decides to permanently remove them from the business, Bias said.

"We’re hoping many of them can be saved and relocated to sanctuaries," he said.

A widespread problem

Tuesday’s seizure illustrates the need for tighter regulation of the exotic-pet industry, said an official with Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation organization.

More than 200 million specimens — mostly tropical fish but also a lot of reptiles — enter the United States every year, said Peter Jenkins, director of international conservation for the Washington, D.C.-based group.

"It is a huge trade, and there is a thriving Internet market where people just go online, buy these animals and have them shipped to them," Jenkins said. "It’s very difficult to control this market, as you can imagine. It’s not like a pet store where an inspector can just walk in and see and smell the animals."

High among concerns is the potential for sick animals to bring disease into the country, he said. And keeping different species healthy during shipping is a challenge.

"They all take very different kinds of containers and care regimes and food," Jenkins said. "You really have to be specialized to be taking care of sloths and turtles and snakes."

Furthermore, spiders and snakes can become invasive if released into the wild. People who buy exotic snakes often decide they don’t want them anymore once the snakes get bigger, he said.

Burmese pythons and African rock pythons are now found in the Florida Everglades, he said. South Texas has been identified as an area where Burmese pythons could thrive in the warm climate.

The suckermouth catfish, which even kills birds that try to eat it, has already invaded Texas reservoirs.

There is little federal regulation of the industry, Jenkins said. Most regulation is left up to the states, he said.

"This is a good example of why the federal government should step in and try to regulate this import trade," he said.

Staff writers Alex Branch and Nathaniel Jones contributed to this report.

© Star-Telegram

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton