OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – It was turtle trouble for a former Oklahoma City zookeeper Thursday as federal agents announced he pleaded guilty to tortoise trafficking and allegedly selling Galapagos tortoise hatchlings for big bucks.
All it takes is an application and you can own just about any animal native to the state as a pet. In this case though, a man went beyond that, taking a hold of turtles he wasn’t even supposed to have.
“That produces safety problems to humans, that produces health problems for animals and population level issues for those animals,” said Micah Holmes with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
In the case of Joshua Taylor Lucas, that wasn’t what it turned out to be. Galapagos tortoises are endangered. Federal officials say they’re worth up to $5,000 on the black market.
“It’s really important that wildlife remains healthy both under populations and really stays put where they’re supposed to be,” Holmes said.
According to Holmes, residents are allowed to keep wild animals as pets under state law. However, that’s only if you have a specific license.
“We know what animals were purchased, what animals were sold, what animals died, what animals were born,” he said.
However, the department only regulates animals native to Oklahoma. As for animals that are not native, that’s regulated at the federal level.
“Those are governed under the purview of the United States fish and wildlife service,” Holmes said.
“They’re so rare,” said Derek Wikel. The owner of Wikel’s Sulcata’s Farm. Wikel is a tortoise breeder in Pryor. He specializes in selling 300-pound Sulcata’s, which are about half the size of a Galapagos.
“There’s not many people out there that’s breeding them besides the zoos,” Wikel said.
This is why Wikel said they are a hot commodity. According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice, Lucas admitted to stealing, selling and shipping 21 Galapagos tortoise hatchlings to someone in Nevada. He has been charged with wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits people from acquiring or distributing any fish, wildlife or plant that was obtained illegally.
The Oklahoma City Zoo released the following statement:
“The Oklahoma City Zoo’s former employee, Josh Lucas, assistant curator of herpetology, was formally sentenced on federal charges from US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) for the illegal sale and interstate distribution of Galapagos tortoises. Mr. Lucas stole Galapagos tortoise eggs from the OKC Zoo, hatched them, and sold the offspring between April and June of 2016. This highly unusual incident has shocked and saddened the entire Zoo staff and has strengthened our vigilance to care for and protect the wildlife entrusted to us. Since learning of the theft in March 2020, the Zoo has modified internal caretaking policies, security procedures and record keeping for managing this species to prevent this from happening in the future.”OKLAHOMA CITY ZOO SPOKESPERSON
“We all love wildlife and we want those populations to remain healthy,” Holmes said.
Lucas was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and three years probation. He also has to pay $32,000 in restitution to the zoo.
Holmes said turtle smuggling is not necessarily new to the state of Oklahoma. He said the department did an in-depth investigation into box turtle smuggling.