BURLINGTON, Ont. – Officers had been watching the shore of the St. Lawrence River near Cornwall, Ont., from outside a nearby church for most of the day when the boat carrying the contraband finally arrived.
On the other side of the river, a U.S. border control helicopter had hovered in wait to follow it across, but then taken off when the vessel dawdled to avoid tipping off its operators. But now the boat was here, and the van they were monitoring pulled up to the river bank.
In a matter of minutes, a woman on the boat unloaded three boxes that were soon placed in the van by a man.
That was the cue. As they swooped in on the stunned smugglers — prompting the woman to nosedive onto the boat and sail away — the officers seized the boxes.
Inside were 205 reptiles, among them Chinese striped turtles, African side neck turtles, South American red-footed tortoises, a serrated hinge-back tortoise, green iguanas and Jackson’s chameleons.
And many, if not all of them, were bound for pet stores, according to Environment Canada, which led the investigation and laid charges against the man and some of his associates.
In Ontario alone, “we get about four or five files a year on average, so it happens quite frequently,” said Lonny Coote, Environment Canada’s director for wildlife enforcement in Ontario. “Of course we don’t know how much we’re not detecting.”
Animals such as chameleons, parrots, monkeys and tigers are prized as pets precisely because they are not native to Canada, and often because they are rare or unusual, experts say.
Some are bred by owners already on Canadian soil — at times discreetly, for more uncommon or potentially dangerous animals — but others are snatched from their natural habitats and snuck across borders under car seats, in shipping containers with false bottoms, and even in the mail, often leaving the creatures in dire health or worse, they say.
Those animals are delivered directly to private buyers or pet stores who sell them as family pets. Others are reshipped to destinations abroad, where larger markets await.
It’s hard to gauge the scope of this black market, but wildlife is now the fourth largest illegal trade after drugs, counterfeit money and human trafficking, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and valued at roughly US$19 billion per year globally.
Reptiles, experts say, are common contraband. In one notorious case, a Waterloo, Ont., man was caught smuggling dozens of turtles in his pants and is now serving a 57-month sentence in an American prison.
“We’ve caught one guy, he had snakes in his socks,” said Coote. “He was stopped at the border, his vehicle was inspected, he had nothing, but when we did a pat-down on him, he had snakes in his socks.”
People have sewn false pockets in their jackets to hold bird eggs and worn them on flights, he said. In the Toronto area, there is a market for finches from Trinidad and Guyana, which are stuffed into hair rollers with their beaks sealed shut and also hidden in jackets, Coote said.
Some have tried colouring in the pelts of Bengal or Serval cats to pass them off as regular cats, he said. Decades ago, someone tried to sneak in two baby elephants in the back of a truck by declaring them as car parts.
Some are animal lovers or collectors who simply don’t want the hassle of filling out paperwork, Coote said.
But for those smuggling animals in bulk, he said, there is another, more powerful motivator: money.
“It’s a lucrative business, if they can get away with it,” he said, noting that a turtle bought for 50 cents can then be sold for hundreds of dollars.
Even if several animals die in transit, smugglers still make a profit, he said. “There’s a mortality rate they’re willing to accept.”
Some networks are complex and linked to organized crime, Coote said. Some are simpler.
The man arrested on the shore of the St. Lawrence had handled more than 18,000 illegal reptiles over the years, an estimated value of roughly $700,000, according to documents obtained through search warrants, Coote said.
Dennis Day pleaded guilty to illegally importing reptiles and was convicted of smuggling in 2013. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail, to be served on weekends, and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine.
Day was already on the authorities’ radar because his pet lion had escaped from the care of a friend on a nearby reserve a few years earlier before being captured by authorities and sent to the Granby Zoo.
The woman on the boat, meanwhile, lived on a reserve in New York State. She was arrested and convicted by U.S. officials.
A third man who owned a reptile store in Montreal was also charged and convicted with illegal importation of reptiles and ordered to pay a $45,000 fine. He was successfully sued this year by the store’s former landlord over the discovery of more than 250 reptile carcasses inside the building’s walls. It’s unclear where those reptiles came from.
Which animals can be brought into Canada — and how — is determined by several laws enforced by three federal departments: Environment Canada is responsible for laws related to conservation, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency oversees laws related to the health of animals, and the Canadian Border Services Agency ensures any imports are properly declared and flags any suspicious cases for the other two departments.
It can be difficult to co-ordinate efforts at times, said Coote, the Environment Canada regional enforcement director.
“We’re still trying to work on the judicial system to appreciate the seriousness of these violations,” he said. Officials are also looking into whether they could eventually lay criminal charges for animal cruelty in some cases.
Deep inside a government building on the Burlington, Ont., waterfront, a room with white metal shelves holds animal contraband seized by Coote’s staff, all of whom are trained and armed as peace officers.
A stuffed tiger lies below a mounted wolf pelt, a stone’s throw from a taxidermy lynx and monkey head. Large grey Rubbermaid bins are stacked and labelled “reptile skins.” It’s old evidence from long-resolved cases. A locked area in the back holds current materials.
In another room, a small tank sits on a stainless steel counter. Inside, a turtle the size of a thumbnail splashes around in a small stone basin. It’s a Reeve’s turtle, a threatened species that requires a permit. Officers found it in the mail, in a box with two turtles that did not survive the ordeal. Soon it will have a new temporary home.
Animals seized by officials are placed with qualified caretakers — often zoos or similar facilities — until the trial is over, Coote said. After the appeal period has ended, the animals are donated to those caretakers. A map on the wall bears Post-it notes that show where each chameleon, python and parrot is staying.
Not all exotic animals are brought in secretly. Some are born here from previously imported or smuggled animals.
On its website, Northern Exotics — a pet store in Sudbury, Ont., that also houses close to 100 species of exotic pets — advertises its breeding program. The store mostly breeds reptiles to ensure their provenance and has hatched about 20 corn snakes this year, said the store’s owner, Dennis Epp.
Other animals have reproduced, however, including some squirrel monkeys — a species highly sought after by exotic animal enthusiasts, Epp said. They now have four, including a weeks-old baby.
“There’s no one to fix them,” he said.
The store also runs an exhibit akin to an indoor zoo, charging visitors between $10 and $14 for a chance to see the animals, many of which it says have been abandoned. It also hosts birthday parties in the 370-square metre exhibit at a minimum cost of $165 per group of eight children, and offers its animals for film and TV shoots.
Most of these animals are not for sale because they make poor pets, Epp said, but the store nonetheless fields regular offers for them, particularly the monkeys.
“People see them on TV and they see this trained monkey that’s doing something… They don’t realize how much work is involved, they want it,” he said.
When people surrender animals to the store, staff don’t ask where they come from, Epp said, admitting that some probably arrived under questionable circumstances. At least one, an Asian leopard cat, is listed as endangered and can only be imported by zoos or similar organizations, he said.
On top of caring for the store’s animals, Epp also keeps several exotic pets at his farm. He has a jungle cat — a wild breed that, when crossed with a domestic cat, creates the hybrid Chaussie cat — a Burmese python and two coatimundi, a South American relative of the raccoon. Each is kept in a spacious enclosure, he said.
But even with his experience, Epp has struggled with some animals, he said. A few years ago, he took in four snow macaques, but had to rehome them after one of the females attacked another.
Mark Schierl got his first Siberian tiger decades ago from “a place in Sundridge (Ontario) that had all sorts of exotics.” Years later, he said, he picked up two more in Kenora, Ont.
“I killed a load of buffalo for a guy and he couldn’t pay so I took the cat out in trade,” said Schierl, who owns a meat packing business and butcher shop in Powassan, near North Bay, Ont.
For years, he kept the tigers out behind Northern Meat Packers and fed them “stuff from the plant” as well as hunting season scraps, he said. The cats were somewhat of an open secret and drew throngs of admirers from the town of about 3,000.
“We had to put gates and locks and ropes up… people were climbing over gates,” he said.
No one was hurt, except Schierl himself who once required 50 stitches after playtime with one tiger turned a little rough, he said.
The last of his tigers died about 16 years ago from canine parvovirus, a highly contagious virus that mostly affects dogs, he said. But the log cabins are still there and Schierl said he would love to own tigers again.
“It’s just hard to get them now,” he said, “Rules change in the world.”