Operations Chameleon and Snakescam

The Politically Incorrect Parrot by Judy Franklin
On Wings, September 1998 Volume 4:9

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. One agency I know has had ample practice at deceiving. Despite the number of times the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been caught in its fibs, however, it persists in its deliberate pattern of deceit.

This time, the Service has announced the latest of its undercover sting operations, Operation Chameleon. This investigation, as usual, is part of the Service's effort to portray the illegal trade in 'endangered' species as the major cause of their declining numbers in the wild. In fact, of course, habitat loss is arguably the key reason for the loss of most species.

Operation Chameleon, it seems, targeted on Keng Liang "Anson" Wong, who operates Sungai Rusa Wildlife, in Panang, Malaysia. Chameleon, reportedly, was a five-year investigation of the illegal reptile trade, culminating on September 14 in the arrest of Wong and two of his U.S. associates.

Wong was charged in a 55-count indictment, charging the international businessman had smuggled more than three hundred animals into the United States. I will have more details on that later, when I receive my copy of the indictment.

Wong was arrested in Mexico City, as he traveled to meet a representative of "Pac Rim Enterprises," a FWS sting operation set up in 1995. The 'representative,' of course, was a Service undercover agent, posing as a reptile buyer and importer.

The Service, according to their media representatives, had obtained permission from the Department of the Interior, the State Department, the appropriate U.S. embassy, and the Mexican attorney general to operate in Mexico.

James Michael Burroughs, 47, of San Francisco, and *Beau Lee Lewis, 20, of Buckeye, Arizona. were also arrested on September 14. Both are charged with conspiracy, smuggling and other crimes. A fourth defendant, Yuk Wah 'Oscar' Shiu, of Hong Kong remains at large. 

[ * Update:  This case is still open and prosecutors have been trying to convict Beau of smuggling for most of his adult life.  Young Beau answered an ad in a reptiles magazine which was placed by a federal agent who was trying to lure Anson Wong, a Malaysian reptile dealer, to the US to face smuggling charges. Lewis was convicted of 17 felony charges in 2001 and sentenced to three years in prison. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that the government had violated his right to a speedy trial by delaying the proceedings for nearly four months to arrange testimony by the original government agent. A federal judge allowed a new indictment, and Lewis was convicted again in 2005, this time on six felonies, and sentenced to 23 months in prison. Then in 2008, the appeals court said the judge, who by then had left the federal bench, had used the wrong standard in evaluating Lewis' right to a speedy trial, and referred the issue to a new judge. The case then wound its way back to the appeals court, which finally ruled in 7/2010 that the second trial in 2005 was legal because the charges were serious, the government had acted in good faith, and the four-month delay didn't significantly harm Lewis. Still awaiting argument before another panel of the appeals court is a claim that the original judge gave faulty instructions to the jury on the core of Lewis' defense -- that the agent entrapped him into smuggling reptiles.]

Pac Rim Enterprises, as a 'front company' run by USFWS agents, dealt in legitimate animal imports, but also solicited smuggled animals in the course of its investigation into the illegal wildlife trade.

Wong had reportedly done some business with Pac Rim Enterprises in the past. He was reluctant, however, to do business in the United States, as in 1992, he was indicted and charged with wildlife violations concerning rare iguanas, Bengal monitors and Indian shelled turtles, but had thence far eluded capture by Service operatives. For that reason, a business meeting was set for Mexico City, and a Service agent traveled there to meet the reptile dealer.

There, Wong was arrested by Mexican authorities on a Mexican Provisional Arrest Warrant. He will be held in Mexico until the United States authorities can arrange for his extradition to San Francisco, where he will face charges that include smuggling, conspiracy, and countless Lacey Act violations.

This is not the first time the Service has engaged in an elaborate sting operation targeting the reptile industry. "Operation Snakescam" was a similar 'sting' operation that took place in the early eighties. Snakescam was dubbed a 'herpetological holocaust' by the Northern Ohio Association of Herpetologists, who told of 'overzealous Interior and Customs agents that could be seen swarming . . . . guns drawn, handcuffs ready,' as if Elliot Ness had returned to television, all for the purpose of arresting a handful of questionable suspects.

Indeed, as in a number of recent Service endeavors, animals suffered immensely not at the hands of so-called suspects, but rather at the hands of the Service. In 1983, Milwaukee conservationist and author of the 1983 "A Study in Wildlife Law Enforcement: The United States Snakescam of 1981," Gary Casper described the operation's effect: "The aftermath of this event has raised many questions as to the acceptability of the law enforcement techniques employed, which demonstrated a disregard for civil rights and created a huge black market for protected wildlife."

"The operation resulted in the destruction of many rare animals and the research being done with them, and has created an unprecedented paranoia among zoological personnel throughout the United States," he continued.

The Pac Rim Enterprises of the eighties was called the Animal Welfare Exchange, located outside of Atlanta, Georgia. One of its 'masterminds' was Agent Rick Leach, who figured prominently in Operation Renegade, which targeted the bird trade. Leach is still with the service, often in an undercover capacity.

And like Operation Renegade, it had its victims, mostly the animals the Service allegedly was 'protecting,' but also legitimate hobbyists and businesspersons caught up in the Service's fervor to make arrests. And the Service's tactics, as you know, are rarely above reproach.

One herpetologist, Tom Bloomer, received unsolicited packages from AWE, one of which contained the endangered Sand Francisco garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis terataenia. Bloomer promptly shipped them back. The AWE then shipped him the snakes again. Other reptile enthusiasts were also sent unsolicited animals through the mail, some also were endangered species.

One documented case associated with the AWE is that of the Central Coast Reptile Research Center, which was the subject of one of the July 16, 1981 Snakescam raids which took place around the country. In that raid, fifteen of seven vehicles.

While the owner Terry Lilley was handcuffed and taken to jail, his house and premises were searched and ransacked for five hours. During the course of the 'search,' agents took the man's files, slide collection, all breeding records, unfinished scientific papers, permits, business records, and even his surfing pictures. In addition, nineteen breeding reptiles were taken without a warrant.

All these animals were fully legal, and all had been captive bred at the facility. The snakes were taken nonetheless, and were placed in the 'care' of individuals who were totally unqualified to care for them.

At a December 31 court date, one Baja rosy boa Lichamura trivirgata roseofusca was returned dead, its innards handing out. The agent explained that the snake, which had been pregnant at the time of its demise, had been misidentified, and the agent 'no longer needed it.' Though agents had misidentified the snake, no apology was ever offered.

That was not the end of the deaths attributable to the Service, of course. When Lilley was exonerated by the courts on June 28, 1982, he told associates, "After one year of unbelievable harassment, blackmail and even physical violence, I won a court decision to have my reptiles returned. . . " It wasn't that simple.

Of the twenty-four snakes illegally seized by the Service and California Fish and Game that June day, two California mountain kingsnakes Lampropeltis zonata, one banded kingsnake L. getulus californiae, one Baja rosy boa and one San Diego rosy boa L. trivurgata subsp. had died in Service custody.

Six aberrant patterned kingsnakes had been given to a zoo, allegedly to secure testimony (for the prosecution) of an official there. These snakes were subsequently traded to other zoos, further complicating matters. Agents legally should have obtained a court order before disposing of any animals whatsoever.

The judge gave the agents fifteen days to return all Lilley's snakes. The agents later told the court that two of the California mountain kingsnakes had been stolen from one of their labs.

Of the two rosy boas returned to Lilley, one was dead. Two California mountain kingsnakes were dead. One San Diego rosy boa was not returned at all. It had been killed at a local zoo. Only nine other snakes were returned alive.

In Operation Snakescam, far more reptiles were killed than were saved. The Service worked to create an illegal trade, then pounced on the innocent. Snakescam produced few real violations of wildlife law; most offenses involved only minor shipping violations, and other petty charges. There was no lucrative worldwide illegal trade in reptiles, as alleged.

But nonetheless, lives were destroyed, and people were bankrupted paying for lawyers to if fight these unfounded charges. People who did not have the money to fight were forced to enter plea agreements, copping a plea to offenses they did not commit, and that the service itself knew were unfounded.

This sort of enforcement tactic has driven a wedge between wildlife enforcement officers and those they would regulate. Many dedicated conservationists, even those trading only in captive bred stock, have ceased breeding endangered animals, paranoid that the USFWS agents might wrongly target them. The animals are losers, then, too.

Snakescam was just one example of bureaucracy run amok, of an agency so far out of control it holds itself not only above the law, but as a law unto itself. (See Perils of a Python Breeder posted to this clearinghouse) There is no difference between what happened in 1980 and what is happening now. Nor is Operation Snakescam any different than Operation Renegade, only that time it was birds that were dying. Thirty-thousand dollars worth, in one instance, with the Service being the proximate cause of the demise of these birds.

In Renegade, innocents, too, were targeted. Some, many of whom were raided but were never charged with a crime, are just now beginning to tell of their experiences. Some have never had all their property returned. None will ever be the same, or think the same of a government that could let such abuses continue.

What, then, of Operation Chameleon? What reason do we have to believe in the Service's protestations of credibility in this case?

"Reptile smuggling is a high-profit criminal enterprise, and the United States is its largest market," crowed Service Director Jamie Clark in the service's press release on Chameleon. Are we to believe that this return of Operation Snakescam is any more successful than its failed predecessor?

Unfortunately, not. From an agency that parrots alleged 'Interpol' estimates that illegal wildlife trafficking worldwide is a $6 billion enterprise (up from $5 billion just last year), without providing any documentation, that isn't easy.

Are we to believe in the integrity of an agency that declares that one-third of all cocaine seized in a recent year was connected with the wildlife trade? When this newspaper used the Freedom of Information Act to inquire as to how many Service arrests were associated with drugs, we learned the answer was a resounding ZERO. No, that doesn't speak well for the agency's credibility, let alone its integrity.

When I have a question on a press release, I have no problem calling the Service's media services and asking questions. But that's not where the problem lies. It lies with its agents, and those at the top of the food chain, who gain power and influence by making it appear that their efforts against some bogeyman international smuggling community are making progress in saving the world's wildlife populations.

If that were not the case, these lies, these outright fairy tales, would be unnecessary. Of the reptile people I talked to, none could even conceive of an illegal market for a Komodo dragon, let along put a price on it. The same goes for the tuatara and several other CITES I species allegedly involved in the case.

I did get an estimate of $500 retail for a radiated tortoise that the Service had listed for some $5,000. A Boelen's python, listed by the Service at $3,500, is being captive bred in this country, and sells for only a few hundred dollars here. Other species the Service listed are neither endangered in their native lands, nor particularly expensive there.

But the Service is concerned with restriction, we know, not captive breeding. Their idea of conservation does not include sustainable use, the pet trade, hunting, or even ex-situ captive breeding of endangered species.

Witness the plight of the ploughshare tortoise Geochelone yniphora, reportedly one of the most endangered animals in the world, found only in the dry forests of north-western Madagascar. It does not mate until it is some twenty years old.

It is under threat mainly from habitat loss and predation of young and eggs by introduced non-native bush pigs. To counter this threat, Project Angonoka, as the animal is called in its native range, was begun.

Several years ago, seventy of the rare tortoises were stolen from that breeding project. Despite the efforts of wildlife conservation organizations to track down the animals, recovery efforts were unsuccessful.

Reports from legal dealers that the animals were being offered in commerce, you see, were largely ignored by Interpol, USFWS, and other wildlife law enforcement agencies, who couldn't be bothered to make a legitimate investigation. No arrests were made in this very real case, where animals actually were endangered.

The Chinese alligator Alligator sinensis, also mentioned in the Chameleon release, is yet another interesting conservation story. This animal, who habitat is confined to the lower Yangsi River, is largely restricted to a small preserve there. The CITES I listed beast is now the world's most endangered crocodilian, largely put at risk by habitat destruction, as its wetland home gives way to agricultural progress.

One of the smaller of the crocodilians, the Chinese alligator frequently comes into contact with the local farmers, who regard the beast as little better than a pest to be killed. When killed, the animals are taken to market, where their organs are sold as ingredients in folk remedies, despite local prohibitions on the practice. The skin has little value.

The wild population of the Chinese alligators now stands at around seven or eight hundred. Over ten thousand, though, have been bred in captivity, in China, Europe and the United States. Chinese alligators now have no economic value to farmers in what is now the most productive agricultural area in China. They are worth more dead than alive.

Now, though, an innovative proposal has been made regarding the beasts: the introduction of a limited number of same-sex animals into the pet trade has been proposed as a way to raise funds for conservation projects aimed at preservation of the species.

With the mindset of the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. reptile breeders will likely not participate in such a scheme. In fact, with the current mindset of the FWS, there will be no reptile breeders in the U.S. And bird breeders won't be far behind.

The Service doesn't care about the methods it uses to make its cases. Those who care to research the subject will find abuses dating back two decades, involving some of the same names we read of today. Read your way through Operation Snakescam, Operation Falcon, Renegade, Jungle Trade, and those in between. Should we really expect any better from Chameleon?

The methods are the same, the techniques are the same, the propaganda is the same. It is as easy as plugging the name of their latest animal/fossil/plant of choice into their 'formula' press releases: "A (three or four or five) year investigation into the multibillion dollar illegal trade in (Insert creature here)." Pick your victim, create your crime. And if you happen to make a legitimate arrest once in a while, you can create yet another Operation, even if said operation consists only of this single arrest. Then exaggerate everything. And watch the mainstream press swallow the whole thing hook, line and sinker.

That's why the avicultural community must finally reach out to other wildlife breeders and keepers. It is no longer enough to sit back and watch while the herp community is demonized by the Service; they'll be back for us soon enough. It is time to communicate; it is time to get ready. It is time to get organized and fight as a wildlife community: birds, beasts, herps, what have you. We are all under attack. That is NO fairy tale, believe me.

The reptile community had a close call with proposed transport regulation aimed at putting their vocation/avocation out of business. Their concerted effort to fight has staved off the attack for a time, but only for a time. Could any of us have pulled off a similar effort? I don't know, but if we put up a united front, and fight these isolated attacks together, it will be easier to make a difference. I'll be in there fighting. Can you afford not to?

Best regards, Judy