tokay gecko from the biggest confiscation
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Biggest Confiscation in US History

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I ran the Charm City Reptile and Amphibian Rescue for 14 years (no longer in operation). Here is a story about rescues from the largest confiscation in the US to that point.

The Confiscation

There was a large animal import/wholesale business in Texas in December of 2009. The owners of the business called U.S. Global Exotics, Jasen and Vanessa Shaw, disappeared and have never been brought to justice. They are natives of New Zealand and most people think they went back there to avoid prosecution. Over 26,000 animals were confiscated after an undercover probe involving animal rights organizations and the local Animal Control. The animals were not available for rescue groups until early in 2010 because of court issues.

There were wallabies, hedgehogs, sloths, chinchillas, hamsters and all kinds of animals other than reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates that we took.

Our organization and some other reptile rescues were given the heads up before the raid went down. The shelter was going to need some serious help in placing and caring for these animals. Many of them died, as in most large confiscations. If the animals are messed up enough to cause an in-depth, six month undercover operation, you know there were sick animals there.

There was a hideously long spreadsheet filled with animal breeds, sizes and quantities. Various rescues sent the spreadsheet back marking which animals and what quantities they could take. I checked off a lot more than I wanted, knowing that we wouldn’t get everything checked on the list. As per usual, it turned out we didn’t get much of what we asked for and got some things that we really didn’t want.

Virginia Reptile Rescue, MATTS (Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society) and some other rescues in our area were willing to take in quantities of the animals. Bonnie, from Virginia Reptile Rescue, went down to Nashville to meet a truck full of animals coming from Texas. The people were very disorganized. Bonnie was frustrated, as we all were.

Lots of Snow

Andy Warhol, my greyhound, in the snow
My greyhound, Andy Warhol, in the snow.

Oh, did I mention that we were about to be hit by a blizzard? Bonnie got back to Virgnia before the first blizzard hit. We got nailed with about 2-3 ft. of snow. It was awful. Our animals and those headed to MATTS and some rescue in NJ were coming through Baltimore and getting sorted here. Those animals got stuck in Virginia because our transporter couldn’t get here. Then the second blizzard in about a week struck. We got pummeled with another 2-3 feet of snow. I don’t even remember how much snow it was. I just know it was crazy! The weight of the snow was scary. I was afraid the roof would cave in and it did leak in some places where it never leaked before or since. I’m trying to block it from my memory. It was that horrible.

The 50+ tarantulas and scorpions we were supposed to get, all ended up in Chicago. We didn’t get any of those. I was disappointed because I personally was interested in a lot of them.

Dave, one of my volunteers who also has a 4-wheel drive Jeep, came over and helped me shovel the driveway since I was expecting people, and there was nowhere on the street to park. Baltimore City and Baltimore County actually hired all kinds of extra people for snow removal including people with backhoes and other pieces of equipment that were not usually associated with snow removal. If you stayed out too long, you got snow blindness. Snow was everywhere, and the sunlight reflected crazily off of it. I hope I never experience anything like that again.

Everyone was suffering

I had to dig a path for my dog. He was totally freaked out and didn’t want to go outside at all. Greyhounds need to run every now and then. He was doing it in circles in my den! We could walk only the length of the driveway. There was just one lane open on the street and if a car was coming, there was nowhere to get out of the way. It’s not something that happens in Baltimore. We’re below the Mason-Dixon Line. We’re not supposed to have blizzards, especially two in such a short period of time.

I broke both of my shovels that winter. It was that bad!!! One shovel was a very old metal snow shovel. I dug it into the snow and it twisted oddly and the end was dangling like a loose tooth. That was the end of that shovel. My plastic shovel cracked. I was using a dirt shovel (you couldn’t buy a shovel anywhere) at one point. Luckily, Dave brought a shovel with him. We dug out my driveway so that my car, Dave’s car and another car could all fit. Of course, after all of that work and loss of shovels, the animals didn’t arrive.

The second blizzard

Dave, the volunteer, with a bearded dragon.
Volunteer, Dave Mauler, who helped during the blizzard.

Then, damn it, the second blizzard hit. Dave was kind enough to come back over. I had shoveled just enough for his car to fit on the end of my driveway. And it was so narrow, he could barely get out of the Jeep! We shoveled the driveway again for three cars and eventually the woman showed up with the animals. Unfortunately, many were dead because she had not given them water and she had them for several days. Amphibians need water! I had spoken to the girl on the phone and begged her to keep everything hydrated.

The stench was horrible. Let’s just say there was a LOT of gagging going on at my house!

I don’t like to laugh about dead animals, but there was a frog that died and he looked like a crime scene photo. You start to get gallows humor when you are dealing with massive amounts of death like that. I’ll admit it, Dave and I got the giggles.

Baby Turtles and Frogs

About 250 baby turtles, about the size of a quarter, were coming for Katrina of MATTS. She couldn’t come over right away because she couldn’t get out of her neighborhood. Dave and I went through all of the baby turtles. They were bone dry and many of them were dead. We organized them into three different containers. Two had about ¼” of luke warm water for hydration purposes. The last one had no water. That’s where we put the dead ones. The unknown (we couldn’t really tell if they were dead or not) went in the second container. We were offering water to them just in case. The ones that were obviously alive went into the last one. We had to frequently change the water because the animals were lying in their own filth and we couldn’t have them drinking bacteria-infested water. It was just a disgusting mess.

Fire belly toad
Fire belly toad.

There were a bunch of fire belly toads for Katrina too. Most of them were alive. A few got loose and Katrina was chasing them around my house.

As I am writing, this I’m fighting off repeated cold chills because just thinking about the condition of these animals grosses me out, big time! Between the amount of physical labor trying to tend to large groups of creatures in small containers and the nightmarish odor. It was quite a challenge. 

Snow from Hell

Several times a day I was out with my dirt shovel and shoveled a little more of my patio and eventually a path in the back yard for my dog. I wore hip waders that kept me very dry, but not very warm and stomped around the yard to make smaller paths. My back yard became a gigantic white maze. Andy Warhol, my greyhound, got to the point that he could almost run through it. His white fur looked dirty in the blazing brightness of the snow. I’m not a huge fan of winter, that winter was one of the worst ever.

A rescued fat-tail gecko
One of the confiscated fat-tail geckos.

We received a bunch of fat-tail geckos (over a year later, we still had seven of them). The baby leopard geckos didn’t fare so well (all died). Also in the group were corn snakes (three remained). There were a couple baby hybrid snakes (pure evil and very bitey so no one wants them). We still had a baby California kingsnake, but several of those and several corn snakes were adopted. A few fat-tails were adopted. I can’t even remember what else came in that group.

Hermit Crabs

We received several hermit crabs. I never had much luck with hermit crabs before those. Two volunteers fostered some and I kept some. They did really well, with only one or two deaths. I really love them now that I understand how to keep them and what they eat. They are interesting and have little personalities. Or, at least, some are more shy than others. Some are more outgoing. We’ve had several since then that also did well.

The non-NJ Rescue

Chinese water dragon
A rescued Chinese water dragon.

A number of the reptiles were supposed to go to a rescue in NJ. Their animals included two Chinese water dragons. When they arrived, I thought one was dead. It was so emaciated and barely moving. Many Chinese water dragons were available from the confiscation. I didn’t ask for any because they are difficult to place, even though they make nice pets. They need a lot of space for a relatively small animal.

The NJ people were upset because they only got a fraction of the animals they asked to receive. They decided it wasn’t worth it to come to Baltimore for a handful of animals, so we got stuck with the water dragons and some more baby leopard geckos.

Another organization in the DC area came and got the leopard geckos, but left the fat-tail geckos and the water dragons. The water dragons have blossomed into some gorgeous animals, but they were still here over a year later. They are amusing and easy to handle, but no one wants them because they need large enclosures. Thanks, NJ guys, whoever you are!

Confiscation blues

Any time there is a confiscation because of abuse, there is always a high mortality rate. There is also a high sadness rate. It is so difficult to watch animals suffer and die. I will take them to the vet to be euthanized if I think they don’t have a chance. But with organ failure, you can’t see it. They were probably without water for too long and had kidney damage. Even though they are still alive when they got here, there was no way to fix them.

The only way to know if their kidneys are functioning is through bloodwork. That is extremely expensive, especially on a large scale. And I don’t know how you would even get blood from an animal that is only three inches from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. They don’t have enough blood in their body for a full medical work-up.

So, all we could do was to feed them, water them and wait to see if they got better. A lot of them did. Many of them died. And then there were the corn snakes. The corn snakes were in a stack of plastic containers. I think I forgot to mention that not only did Dave shovel the driveway with me, he also purchased a large amount of plastic containers. 

Puke Pile

A "butter" corn snake.
One of the “puke pile” corn snakes.

We had two small stacks of those containers with corn snakes that puked every time they ate. Our affectionate nickname for them was the “puke pile.” Now, known as the pukers, there are three left. I’m happy to say after over a year, they rarely puke. They were adopted only by people who we made aware of their specific needs. These corn snakes needed to eat prey that was a little smaller than one would expect for snakes of their size. They were about three feet long, but were eating a couple fuzzies (a young mouse who just got its fur) instead of a regular sized mouse. Their stomachs just couldn’t tolerate large prey items. I didn’t know if they would ever be right. If someone tried to breed these animals, would they be able? Who knows?

It’s really hard to tell the long-term effects of abuse on reptiles. There is not a lot of information out there. Their life expectancy is not going to be as long as animals that had a perfect beginning, but then they have already lived longer than they would have at that wholesaler’s miserable hellhole of a place.

Most of the fat-tail geckos had regenerated tails. Some looked like a shriveled raisin, literally, in the beginning. After a year, their tails were thick and fat, the way they are supposed to be. It’s amazing what regular feedings and water will do for an animal.


This rescue incident from hell obviously stands out in my memory, but I learned a great deal and was gratified to have saved so many animals that would have died awful deaths.

Please leave your comments below. 

Read more by Holli Friedland.

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  1. What a terrible experience. And they say reptiles are cold blooded. I’d say they New Zealanders were the cold blooded ones.