Skip to main content

On Snake Smuggling, Lion Killing, and Fish Crimes

The Lacey Act, a 115-year-old law that seeks to protect threatened species, is still going strong.
A creep of smuggled Hermann's tortoises. (Photo: belizar/Shutterstock)

A creep of smuggled Hermann's tortoises. (Photo: belizar/Shutterstock)

Earlier this month, a social worker from Florida pleaded guilty to buying, selling, transporting, and bartering at least 59 illegal snakes, according to the Department of Justice. Last week, a jury in federal court convicted a New Jersey man of trafficking in illegal paddlefish and paddlefish caviar, a crime discovered in a lengthy undercover investigation of the paddlefish black market. And in July, Lou’s Fish Market in the Bronx got busted for a scheme that involved falsifying fishing reports to sell hundreds of thousands of pounds of federally controlled fluke and bass.

Those are just a few of the more recent criminal cases brought by the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice. The Lacey Act, sponsored in Congress by Iowa Representative John Lacey in 1900, was first established to stop hunters who were avoiding prosecution for illegally killing big game in one state, and then crossing into a state with different fewer hunting restrictions. From those limited beginnings, the law has changed and grown considerably in the past 115 years.

When Lacey Act violations are prosecuted, they tend to be either settled or quietly resolved in court with some combination of forfeiture, hefty fines, or small amounts of jail time.

In the past, pet buyers and sellers who have every intention of remaining within the bounds of the law have criticized the Lacey Act for being confusing and unevenly enforced. Other critics of the law have said that it doesn’t go far enough. But while it is still used to prosecute the same crime that inspired it, the law has evolved to govern the trade, possession, or “laundering” of all types of endangered and restricted animals and plants—even wood. For instance, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service raided Gibson guitar factories and offices in 2009 and 2011, on suspicions that the company was importing restricted types of wood that had been illegally harvested in Madagascar.

When Lacey Act violations are prosecuted, they tend to be either settled or quietly resolved in court, like the ones mentioned above, with some combination of forfeiture, hefty fines, or small amounts of jail time. (Gibson eventually settled with the federal government out of court for $350,000.) But outside of the U.S., some international animal smugglers, when caught in the act, will inevitably make the headlines with their hard-to-believe hubris.

See, for example, these photos of a Norwegian man who strapped 14 snakes, 10 lizards, and a tarantula to his chest in an attempt to smuggle them onto a ferry—or the Vietnamese man who tied 14 rare songbirds to his legs before his flight to Los Angeles (who was inevitably given away by the bird poop falling on his shoes). Smugglers have tried to board planes and cross borders with prized and endangered animals hidden in suitcases, pants, skirts, and way-too-small plastic bottles and bags. Begging a “snakes on a plane” allusion from Gawker a few years ago, a Malaysian man almost brought 95 endangered boa constrictors on a flight to Indonesia. But in a nightmare-inspiring scene, the suitcase “burst open on a conveyor belt” before he could board.

Perhaps the biggest recent story that has invoked references to the Lacey Act was the infamous killing of “Cecil” the lion on a big-game hunting trip in Zimbabwe by a dentist from Minnesota. According to a Reuters report, aside from international scorn, Dr. Walter Palmer also faced a potential investigation by Fish and Wildlife to see if the killing was not just an unfortunate accident, but in fact “part of a conspiracy to violate U.S. laws against illegal wildlife trading.”

Last month, a department official publicly asked Palmer to immediately contact the agency, and he apparently did so soon after. A spokesman for Fish and Wildlife told the Huffington Post that the department appreciated Palmer’s cooperation, and that “the Service’s investigation is ongoing.”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.