July 13, 2008

Kentucky Officials Seize Illegally Traded Reptiles

FRANKFORT, Ky. - State conservation officers seized more than 125 venomous snakes, arrested 10 people and cited one other Thursday after a nearly two-year undercover investigation of those who allegedly illegally possessed, imported and trafficked the deadly reptiles.

Forty-four officers with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife confiscated the snakes and other reptiles, including an alligator, in the investigation, and are expected to issue more than 700 charges.

Animals seized include western diamondback rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes, cottonmouth water moccasins, northern and southern copperheads, cobras, great basin rattlesnakes, a gaboon viper, a puff adder and a 2-foot-long alligator.

Undercover officers bought more than 200 illegal reptiles during the investigation, code named "Twice Shy." Some were purchased through the Internet.

Arrest warrants have been served in Bell, Harlan, Madison, Letcher and Boone counties.

Officers have already levied 416 charges and are expected to issue at least 300 more charges as the investigation continues.

"This was a well-conducted and well-documented investigation that has put those who would engage in the illegal selling and buying of any wildlife in Kentucky on notice that they are subject to arrest and prosecution," Bob Milligan, law enforcement director for the state fish and wildlife department, said in a statement.

"It is disturbing to me that individuals would keep such dangerous wildlife in their homes and in neighborhoods where they put their families, visitors and neighbors at such high risk," he said.

Department spokesman Mark Marraccini said Internet sales "clued us in" to the investigation.

People obtain the animals for various reasons, he said, ranging from the desire for an exotic pet to collection of valuable venom to religious purposes. Handling snakes is practiced in a few churches based on the interpretation of Bible verses saying true believers can take up serpents without being harmed.

Marraccini said the department has done other undercover investigations but this is the first to focus on reptiles.

Originally published by McClatchy Newspapers.

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