Former Oklahoma City Zoo employee pleads guilty to trafficking of endangered Galapagos tortoises

Oklahoma Dept. of Wildlife Conservation says ownership of wildlife in state is legal, but Galapagos tortoise incident outside that scope

By: Austin Breasette
Posted: Mar 4, 2021 / 10:52 PM CST / Updated: Mar 4, 2021 / 10:52 PM CST

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. Former Oklahoma City Zoo employee sentenced after pleading guilty to trafficking endangered Galapagos tortoises 

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. 

Photo goes with story
Galapagos tortoiseS

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.


Editorial Note: Lucas was a local finalist in 2018 and 2018 national contest winner for his work around herpetological conservation.


Former Oklahoma City Zoo employee pleads guilty to trafficking of endangered Galapagos tortoises

13 hrs ago


a close up of a turtle: FILE PHOTO: Photo of Galapagos tortoise at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

© Oklahoma City Zoo FILE PHOTO: Photo of Galapagos tortoise at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

A former Oklahoma City Zoo employee has been sentenced after pleading guilty to trafficking of endangered Galapagos tortoises, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. He was ordered to pay $32,500 in restitution to the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Joshua Taylor Lucas, of Austin, Texas, on Wednesday pleaded guilty to a single-count felony Information charging him with wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act, according to Robert J. Troester, Acting United States Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma.Sign up for our Newsletters

Lucas was charged on April 14, 2020, by Information with violating the Lacey Act. Among other offenses, authorities said the Lacey Act prohibits people from importing, exporting, transporting, selling, receiving, acquiring, or purchasing any fish, wildlife, or plant that was taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States or in violation of any tribal law.https://www.dianomi.com/smartads.epl?id=3533

Lucas pleaded guilty on Wednesday to taking an endangered species of wildlife and then selling and shipping the animals across state lines in violation of the Lacey Act, according to officials. At the hearing, Lucas, a former assistant curator of herpetology at the Oklahoma City Zoo, admitted that he stole several Galapagos tortoise hatchlings during his tenure at the zoo. Lucas also admitted that he sold and shipped 21 Galapagos tortoise hatchlings to a Nevada resident, Kenneth Warren Foose II (deceased), who was previously under Indictment in the Southern District of Texas for the illegal traffic of Galapagos tortoises, according to officials.

At the combined plea and sentencing hearing, United States District Judge Bernard Jones accepted the guilty plea and then sentenced Lucas to serve three years of probation, perform 100 hours of community service, and pay $32,500 in restitution to the Oklahoma City Zoo, officials said.

“The exploitation and trafficking of endangered wildlife for personal profit is unacceptable,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Troester. “I commend the steadfast efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the prosecutors in this case, who are committed to hold traffickers of endangered animals accountable.”

Phillip Land, Special Agent in Charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Office of Law Enforcement for the Southwestern U.S., released the following statement:

“This investigation involved the illegal traffic of endangered Galapagos tortoises for the exotic pet trade. This iconic species is the largest tortoise in the world, with hatchling sized juveniles carrying a black market value starting at $5,000 per animal. Our Special Agents and Wildlife Inspectors make it a priority to identify, investigate, and dismantle illegal trafficking networks, and refer individual violators for prosecution under U.S. Laws.”

Officials with 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.”


Former OKC Zoo employee pleads guilty to trafficking baby tortoises

By Brett Dickerson – Editor -March 4, 2021 Share
2 minute read

OKLAHOMA CITY (OKC Free Press) — Wednesday, Joshua Taylor Lucas pleaded guilty to a single count of felony wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act.

Lucas is a former assistant curator of herpetology at the Oklahoma City Zoo and committed trafficking crimes of selling baby endangered Galapagos tortoises while employed at the zoo.

Robert J. Troester, Acting United States Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma announced the plea and sentencing Thursday.

Baby tortoises

At the combined plea and sentencing hearing, United States District Judge Bernard Jones accepted the guilty plea and then sentenced Lucas to serve three years of probation, perform 100 hours of community service, and pay $32,500 in restitution to the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Lucas “admitted that he stole several Galapagos tortoise hatchlings during his tenure at the Zoo,” the announcement said. “Lucas further admitted that he sold and shipped 21 Galapagos tortoise hatchlings to a Nevada resident, Kenneth Warren Foose II (deceased), who was previously under Indictment in the Southern District of Texas for the illegal traffic of Galapagos tortoises.”

OKC Zoo statement

“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,” Candice Rennels with the Oklahoma City Zoo told Free Press in an email.

“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.”

The OKC Zoo statement varied slightly from the U.S. Attorney’s office statement about how Lucas obtained the hatchlings.

“Mr. Lucas stole Galapagos tortoise eggs from the OKC Zoo, hatched them, and sold the offspring between April and June of 2016.”

Lacey Act

Lucas was charged in federal court April 14, 2020 with violating the Lacey Act.

The act prohibits people from importing, exporting, transporting, selling, receiving, acquiring or purchasing any fish, wildlife, or plant that was taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law, treaty or regulation of the United States or in violation of any tribal law the announcement said.

Exploitation

“The exploitation and trafficking of endangered wildlife for personal profit is unacceptable,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Troester. “I commend the steadfast efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the prosecutors in this case, who are committed to hold traffickers of endangered animals accountable.”

Phillip Land, Special Agent in Charge for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Office of Law Enforcement for the Southwestern U.S. commented on the conviction.

“This investigation involved the illegal traffic of endangered Galapagos tortoises for the exotic pet trade. This iconic species is the largest tortoise in the world, with hatchling sized juveniles carrying a black market value starting at $5,000 per animal.”

“Our Special Agents and Wildlife Inspectors make it a priority to identify, investigate, and dismantle illegal trafficking networks, and refer individual violators for prosecution under U.S. Laws.”

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