More than 20,000 animals seized last month from a business that traded in exotic animals over the Internet will not be returned to the Texas-based company, U.S. Global Exotics -- at least, not if a Texas judge has anything to say about it.
Municipal Judge Michael Smith ruled Tuesday that Jasen and Vanessa Shaw, the owners of U.S. Global Exotics, should not be entrusted with the care of the animals, which included sloths, chinchillas, lemurs, hedgehogs, ferrets, snakes, turtles, lizards, amphibians and spiders. Instead, he granted custody of the animals to the city of Arlington, Texas, where U.S. Global Exotics is based. The SPCA of Texas is currently caring for them.
The animals were reportedly found in appalling conditions; hundreds of animals were found dead at the time of the raid, and approximately 4,000 died later. Jay Sabatucci, manager of animal services with the city of Arlington, reported finding animals that "were not fed, not fed properly, overcrowded and attacking each other. Some were in an environment not proper for them, such as snakes in a 72-degree room with a lamp over them, which is not enough heat and could cause them to die."
Howard Goldman, an undercover investigator working on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was a key figure in the investigation and the custody hearing that followed. Goldman worked at the U.S. Global Exotics facility for seven months and provided investigators with photographic evidence and undercover video of the company's operations.
An attorney for the Shaws, Lance Evans, had accused Goldman of purposely neglecting the animals in his care, saying the undercover investigator was "more concerned about helping PETA achieve its goal of putting U.S. Global out of business than actually aiding any animals that he felt were in distress."
PETA scoffed at the notion; the group's co-founder and president, Ingrid Newkirk, responded to Evans' allegations in an e-mail to the Associated Press, saying U.S. Global Exotics was attempting "to pin the blame for a litany of horrors on the one person who actually cared about the animals."
Goldman has said he was responsible for the care of 1,500 to 3,000 snakes at any one time during his employment at the company and testified that the Shaws refused to pay for necessities for the animals, including food and medical supplies. "We never had the proper amount of food. The snakes would go two or three weeks without even being offered food," he said in court. "There were days I found hundreds of snakes dead."
A post on PETA's blog describes some of Goldman's findings, including captured wild animals "kept for days or weeks in pillowcases, shipping boxes, or soda bottles without food or water or even proper heat and humidity," and tree frogs "kept for weeks on end at [U.S. Global Exotics] in soda bottles that were sitting in a cardboard box in the facility's washroom."
PETA alleges that many of the animals seized from the company "were destined for sale at major national chains such as PetSmart and PETCO," according to a statement released by the group.
Interestingly, Judge Smith noted in his ruling that some evidence heard during the hearing "indicated that this facility was operated in accordance with industry standards of the exotic animal trade ... While this may be true, this court is not free to substitute those standards for the standards set by Texas statutes."
Evans told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he expects his clients to appeal the ruling. "I believe neither the facts nor the law support a seizure of all 27,000-plus animals," he said; instead, he had asked in court that the animals for which there was no evidence of cruel treatment to be returned to the Shaws.
Pending the expected appeal from the Shaws, the city of Arlington plans to transfer ownership of the seized animals to the SPCA of Texas, the Star-Telegram reports. Since many of them were caught in the wild, they will not be put up for adoption, but instead will most likely be sent to zoos and sanctuaries with expertise in caring for exotic animals.
-- Lindsay Barnett