Operation Snow Plow

Trophy slaughter

Tigers are bought, sold and killed on the lucrative private market so eager collectors can show off the rare hides

By Jon Yates and Maurice Possley, Tribune staff reporters.

Operation Snow Plow TigerDarkness had settled by the time Todd “Squirrel” Lantz wheeled the truck and goose-necked trailer through the gravel parking lot and into the warehouse in southwest suburban Alsip. Through the slats on the sides, Bill Kapp and Kevin Ramsey got their first look at a most unusual cargo: tigers. Some were lying down. Others peered out, as Kapp and Ramsey advanced on the trailer carrying handguns. Then the shooting began.

The first tigers went down quietly. But as the bodies began to drop inside the cramped trailer, the remaining animals realized what lay ahead. With the echo of gunfire came roars. Massive paws swiped in vain at the gun barrels as the bullets found their marks.

By the time the shooting stopped, eight tigers lay dead.

While the March 25, 1998, massacre–which Ramsey and Lantz described to authorities–was the largest documented slaughter of endangered tigers in the U.S., it was not an isolated instance of cruelty to rare animals. According to federal authorities, this was one of many such killings in the exotic animal trade, a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry in which a wide assortment of creatures are bought, sold, traded and sometimes slaughtered.

Operating out of roadside zoos and makeshift animal farms, illicit dealers feed a lucrative market for hides and stuffed animals.

After the shooting in the Alsip warehouse was finished, Kapp, Ramsey and Lantz dragged the tigers from the bloody trailer. The tigers were hung from metal hooks that dangled over a deep pit covered by a steel grate. One by one, the tigers were gutted, blood draining into the hole below.

With the efficiency and economy of motion that came from years of experience as taxidermists and hunters, Ramsey and Kapp sliced and scraped until the hides were removed and only the carcasses remained.

After an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of that and other animal killings, 15 men and one woman were indicted on charges of violating the Endangered Species Act. The latest round of charges, filed in May, named seven Chicago-area men.

The 16 defendants, according to the charges, bought, sold or killed tigers and other exotic animals from Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida, Arkansas and Illinois.

Fourteen people, including Ramsey, 32, and Lantz, 39, have pleaded guilty. The remaining two, Kapp, 37, and Richard Czimer, 56, the owner of the Lockport butcher shop where authorities say the tiger meat was sold, are awaiting trial.

Whether the prosecution will have a long-term effect is unclear.

“I am told that we have slowed the trade down,” said Tim Santel, the Fish and Wildlife Service agent who directed the investigation. “Hopefully, it had an impact, but I suspect it is only temporary. The way things work in the wildlife world, if they can make a dollar on it, they will find a way to sell it.”

A review of the prosecution’s case and federal inspection reports, as well as interviews with dealers and informants, provides insight into the exotic animal trade, a world populated by ruthless profiteers and animal lovers alike who trade in a variety of animals, including monkeys, camels, zebras and lions.

On the dark side of the business, smugglers and killers deal in any animal that will turn a profit–even those that are endangered and protected by law, such as Komodo dragons, hyacinth macaws and spotted leopards. Many animals spend their lives in cages, only to be killed and mounted.

Tigers are prized because they are both beautiful and, as an endangered species, hard to acquire. They often are worth more dead than alive, with the pelts selling for $2,000 or more.

Although conservationists have battled for decades to keep wild tigers from being poached to extinction, the number of privately held tigers has boomed. Experts say there are 5,000 to 7,500 in the wild and 1,000 in zoos. But there are 5,000 to 13,000 tigers in private hands in the U.S., most kept as pets, on breeding farms or in sanctuaries.

Although there are well-run sanctuaries, many tigers are confined in cramped cages, basements or back yards. Drug dealers have kept them chained to walls for protection. Some older, unwanted tigers are sold for a pittance or simply given away.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many zoos overbred tigers to attract larger crowds with the cubs. Eventually, the zoos sold surplus animals to exotic-animal dealers. In this tightly knit community, dealers peddled the tigers by word of mouth, at auctions across the country, over the Internet or in trade publications, such as the Indiana-based Animal Finders Guide.

Many of these tigers wound up on breeding farms, where the cubs provided a lucrative source of income. Purchasers often found, however, that cute, cuddly cubs grew up to be dangerous and expensive, eating hundreds of dollars worth of meat every month. They become the currency in an illegal trade fueled by trophy collectors seeking rare animals. For these people, taking the animals in a fair and legal hunt is not important.

Some of the defendants who have pleaded guilty in the tiger killings say they did not think what they were doing was wrong. Others, such as Lantz’s wife, Vicki, accuse federal agents of entrapment, saying they allowed the investigation and killings to go on too long just to catch more people. Federal investigators say that although the killings were unfortunate, they were necessary to expose the entire spectrum of the illegal market, from dealers to trophy collectors, and to build the strongest case.

The most vocal defendant is Kapp, a Will County corrections officer from Tinley Park, who says the tigers were mixed-breeds not covered by the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits killing rare animals or selling them across state lines.

Although he declined to discuss the killings in the indictment, he pointed to a 1998 decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to eliminate certain permit requirements for “generic” tigers–the offspring of cross-breeding among the five tiger subspecies: Siberian, Bengal, Sumatran, Indo-Chinese and South China.

Kapp, who is on disability because of a leg injury, says the change means only purebred tigers are endangered. Generics, he says, are so plentiful in captivity that they are equivalent to cattle.

“They’re mutts, they’re worthless,” Kapp said in an interview. “It wasn’t a hunt. It was never a hunt. It is like killing cows and pigs.”

Kapp’s lawyer, Scott T. Kamin, agreed.

“I’m not denying that they killed and sold animals,” Kamin said. “I’m saying they’re not federally protected. … I would think of it much like a slaughterhouse.”

In arguments filed in Kapp’s case, prosecutors argue that generic tigers are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

“A tiger is a tiger,” Santel said.

A mundane animal park

Operation Snow Plow TigerThe winding road leading to the tiger slaughter in the Alsip warehouse began in Crete, where Steven Galecki opened Funky Monkey Animal Park in the mid-1990s. The park, which was out of sight from passing traffic, was carved out of trees, brush and weeds surrounding Galecki’s trailer home in the 1900 block of West Norfolk Avenue.

The menagerie was stocked with a lamb, a goat and a few chickens with the idea of running a petting zoo, friends and family members said. But there wasn’t much market for such a mundane collection, and by 1996 Galecki and his girlfriend, Corrine Broz, a horse trainer, began buying exotic animals.

They started with a mountain lion purchased from A to Z Exotics in Lake Station, Ind. The business owner, Esther Halko, advised the couple to obtain a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although not all states have exotic-animals laws, in Illinois, the Dangerous Animals Act prohibits ownership of a long list of animals, including tigers, without a USDA license. The agency licenses animal exhibitors, breeders and haulers.

Broz and Galecki paid a $40 licensing fee, saying in the one-page application that they intended to run a roadside zoo, train animals for acts, and keep some as pets. The license, issued Oct. 18, 1996, enabled Galecki to buy or sell virtually any animal.

By early 1997, Galecki had obtained a variety of animals, including macaques, vervets, tigers, cougars, a black leopard, bobcats, a llama, wallabies, black bears and servals–an African cat known as the “poor man’s cheetah.” Galecki housed the animals in cages inside his trailer home and in fenced-in runs in his back yard.

A chance encounter between Galecki and Timothy Laurie, an Elgin man who operated Sark Safaris, an African hunting business, resulted in a confluence of breeders, dealers, a hauler, taxidermists and hunters that fueled the illegal tiger trade, according to federal investigators.

According to interviews with undercover informants, Laurie met Galecki when Galecki put up a for-sale ad for one of his monkeys at Freddie Bear Sports in Tinley Park. Laurie, a member of Safari Club International, bought the monkey for his wife. Laurie also told Galecki he wanted a stuffed tiger to take to conventions to promote his safari business.

On Jan. 20, 1997, Galecki drove to Laurie’s home with a female tiger and a cub. Galecki and Laurie have admitted in court that Galecki shot the adult tiger in Laurie’s driveway, then skinned it in his barn. Galecki left with the cub and returned with its skin.

The skins were taken to a taxidermist and became a diorama of a snarling mother and her cub.

Through Laurie, Galecki began to meet other hunters, many of whom wanted tiger hides, according to investigators. In March, Laurie gave Galecki $7,600 to purchase animals that would be mated and whose offspring Laurie would get, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by the Tribune. But not long after, the two parted after a falling out over division of profits.

That summer all pretense of Funky Monkey operating as an animal park evaporated. Animals sometimes lasted less than a day under Galecki’s care. Some were shot in their cages, Galecki admitted in court. One person familiar with Galecki’s dealings said that Funky Monkey became known in the animal trade as a “one-way petting zoo.”

The USDA first arrived for a routine inspection of Funky Monkey in June 1997, but Galecki and Broz ducked them, repeatedly breaking appointments. With only 99 inspectors for the entire nation, the USDA is hard-pressed to oversee the exotic animal trade. Inspectors do not have police power and forcing recalcitrant animal owners to submit to inspections often requires time-consuming legal battles.

Critics say the agency does a poor job of protecting animals and often overlooks shoddy conditions to avoid having to place the animals elsewhere. The USDA says the agency does an adequate job, performing 12,000 inspections last year.

Feeling the pressure from the USDA, Galecki went back to Freddie Bear Sports in Tinley Park, this time to advertise that all his animals were for sale. Store owner Fred Lutger said he called Ramsey, then living in Oak Forest, a taxidermist who had worked on some deer mounts for Lutger. Ramsey called Kapp, a childhood friend.

On a summer night in 1997, the three drove to Funky Monkey and met Galecki.

Operation Snow Plow Tiger“He gave us prices,” Lutger said in an interview. “He said if we wanted the skins for taxidermy work, he would sell the meat to someone else. He said he needed a decision in a day or two.”

Lutger says he was not interested. But Kapp, according to the indictment, jumped at the chance. A longtime hunter and unlicensed taxidermist, Kapp, like Laurie, also had friends in the big-game hunting community. He had hunted on safari in Africa and on one of his trips met Woody Thompson Jr., whose father operates Willow Lake Sportsman’s Club, a 300-acre private hunting preserve in Three Rivers, Mich.

Through Thompson, Kapp had met several wealthy hunters, men such as Robert Martinez, a Palos Heights physician, and David Woldman, a Lombard truck driver who owned a compost farm. These men were willing to pay thousands of dollars to get a mounted tiger for their homes.

A trailer stained with blood

When USDA inspectors Harry Dawson and Megan Littrell finally got onto the property at Funky Monkey on the morning of Aug. 20, 1997, they came with a sense of urgency. A tipster had called to say Galecki had obtained two tigers–Ahmed and Glory–just three days earlier. The caller feared the animals would be harmed.

Dawson and Littrell found a horse trailer that fit the caller’s description of the vehicle Galecki had used to pick up the two tigers, according to interviews and court documents. Inside the trailer, they found a fresh pool of blood.

Galecki denied to inspectors that he had gotten any tigers in recent days. His girlfriend, Broz, said the blood came from a pony that had injured itself while being hauled that weekend. Broz was not charged in the subsequent federal investigation.

The USDA report of that inspection said other animals were living amid trash, vermin and filth. Old bones and soiled bedding had not been removed from cages. Some animals were in poor health.

The inspectors later would learn they had arrived too late to save Ahmed and Glory, missing their deaths by hours.

That morning, Martinez and Woldman had met at Kapp’s home and drove to the Funky Monkey. Martinez and Kapp each shot a tiger at point-blank range while the animals were confined in the trailer, according to Martinez’s plea agreement.

The tigers were driven to Kapp’s home, where Martinez and Woldman posed for photographs with their kills. Galecki was paid $2,000 by Martinez and $2,500 by Woldman. They would pay Kapp thousands more to perform the taxidermy in his garage, according to the indictment.

The tiger killings then began in earnest.

“I heard about it through the grapevine and I thought, sign me up,” said a Chicago-area hunter who spoke on a condition of anonymity. Kapp’s pitch, he said in an interview, was simple–pay only for the taxidermy work, not the animal itself, and no laws would be broken. Kapp told him that the animals were “generics,” not covered by the Endangered Species Act.

Tiger skins, the hunter said, are almost impossible to find and their scarcity was part of the allure. Eventually, the animals would die anyway and be buried, he reasoned.

“I think a tiger skin looks better on display than it does rotting in a hole,” he said, adding, however, that he ultimately backed out of buying a hide.

“They had guys lined up because everybody thought it was legal,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in going to shoot the thing. I just wanted it in my safari room.”

Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund, said tiger hides are popular among collectors because they are a status symbol.

“Every man on the street knows they’re an endangered species,” Hoover said. “There are plenty of people out there that want to get their hands on something that few or nobody else has.”

Meat proves valuable

Operation Snow Plow TigerThere was money to be made on the meat as well. And Galecki found just the place to go.

The original family butcher shop opened by Richard Czimer’s Hungarian immigrant grandfather in 1914 was a simple little store at 69th and Halsted Streets in Chicago. It wasn’t until 1970, when the store moved to 159th Street in Lockport that Czimer’s Game and Sea Food began to focus almost exclusively on exotic meat.

Golf putters made from bull penises hang above the counter and a stuffed African warthog head hangs from the wall. The meat cases hold snapping turtle meat, beaver ribs, rattlesnake, moose, alligator, musk ox, caribou, wild boar, rabbit, llama, and zebra. A strip of dried lion meat costs $1.59. Beaver ribs sell for $1.98 a pound; kangaroo roasts for four times that amount. Yak burger costs $6.95 a pound.

Because none of these animals are on the endangered species list, selling their meat is legal.

Galecki had begun selling exotic animal meat to Czimer in 1996, everything from black bear and lion to llama and water buffalo.

In 1997, according to federal charges, Galecki and Kapp began selling Czimer the meat from tigers and endangered leopards. Czimer, investigators say, sold the tiger meat as lion, which is legal to sell.

Czimer says he was misled by the sellers who told him the meat came from lions.

“The people I deal with, I have to rely on them,” Czimer said in an interview. “When a carcass of meat comes in without the skin, I have to believe them.”

Sources familiar with the investigation say tiger wasn’t the only meat that was mislabeled in Czimer’s store. In a taped telephone conversation between Kapp and a federal informant, Kapp said he bought three donkeys for $650, skinned them and sold the meat to Czimer as zebra.

Czimer’s store does not sell donkey. Zebra, though, is in the meat case at prices ranging from $8.95 a pound for burger to $15.95 for center-cut steaks.

Czimer was charged after federal investigators working undercover purchased 18 packages of lion meat and sent them to the Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory in Oregon, where tests showed six of the packages were tiger meat.

An insider blows the whistle

Although exotic animals are for sale on the Internet, the nuts and bolts of the exotic animal trade is word of mouth. It is a world in which Sherry Roche, an exotic-animal dealer in Downstate Ellis Grove, has thrived for more than a decade.

She keeps a tattered address book full of names and phone numbers. She knows most of them personally, the rest at least by reputation–breeders, distributors, haulers and sanctuary directors.

Although others in the business had specialties–monkeys or buffaloes, big cats or deer–Roche bought and sold everything. In a business dominated by men, Roche was comfortable inviting other dealers over to drink beer and gossip about the trade.

And, like some in the business, Roche had run into trouble in the past–a 1997 USDA inspection resulted in a $2,500 fine for unsanitary conditions and poor recordkeeping. But she says she has always had a love for animals.

She would become a key informant for Fish and Wildlife Service investigators.

In 1996, Roche crossed paths with Galecki when he was expanding from a domestic petting zoo to exotic animals. Roche helped him obtain a monkey and later sent him a tiger cub.

The next year, after the USDA visited Funky Monkey, inspectors came to her because she was the source of some of his animals. Roche informed the USDA that Galecki had told her he bought an endangered leopard that he planned to kill for its hide.

About the same time, Kapp began contacting her to discuss the purchase of tigers. She feared Kapp planned to kill them because he did not have a license or a facility to house live animals.

Roche contacted Fish and Wildlife investigators and used her position in the business and her gift for talking to help the government set up a criminal investigation.

Tim Santel was put in charge of a small group of undercover Fish and Wildlife agents who posed as buyers of some of the pelts and used covert video cameras to record some of the killings.

According to the indictments, the animal pelts were sold to wealthy hunters, including members of Safari Club International who paid thousands of dollars to stuff them for their trophy collections. The meat, prosecutors say, was hauled to Czimer’s butcher shop. Some of the internal organs are thought to have been sold on the Asian black market, where tiger parts are prized as medicine.

Kapp, according to interviews with buyers, told them they were getting pelts legally.

Although the Endangered Species Act prohibits killing tigers and bars their sale across state lines, it allows them to cross state lines if they are donated–a provision some dealers use to skirt the law. Federal investigators say the paperwork in these transactions described them as donations, but money changed hands, sometimes as a taxidermy or transportation fee.

As the word spread of Kapp’s interest in tigers, Roche taped phone conversations for authorities, talking to dealers to learn who was buying and selling tigers, leopards, and other exotic animals. She helped alert investigators about possible killings and, under the direction of the agents, she brokered deals that kept some animals from being killed. She also helped orchestrate some killings on her farm so they could be secretly videotaped.

“Once the rumor mill got going that they were doing cats, everyone wanted in,” Roche said. “The cats were coming in from everywhere.”

The first killing after the investigation was launched occurred in February 1998 when Roche alerted the agents that Kapp and Ramsey were headed to the 5-H Ranch in Cape Girardeau, Mo., owned by Todd Lantz’s father-in law. Lantz was headed there as well after purchasing four tigers from the Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari in Gentry, Ark.

Agents arrived at the farm and saw Lantz’s trailer pull in, then Kapp and Ramsey. Although the agents did not see what happened, Ramsey later told authorities that Kapp shot and killed the tigers in Lantz’s trailer.

They then loaded the animals onto a trailer Ramsey had borrowed from a Boy Scout troop and skinned the tigers on the way to Chicago. The carcasses, Ramsey said, were taken to Czimer’s.

A big delivery

When he pulled into the Alsip warehouse on that March night in 1998, Lantz was delivering what Kapp’s customers wanted: big cats.

Kapp had agreed to pay $9,000 for nine tigers and two lions Lantz was hauling from Mark Schoebel’s game farm in Wisconsin. Schoebel said in an interview that he did not know the tigers were being taken to slaughter. He was not charged in the investigation.

Inside the warehouse, Kapp looked over the animals. The lions, and one tiger that was deemed too small, were spared–for the time being.

With the tigers still in the trailer, Lantz poked them with a stick to get them into position for an easier kill. Kapp later told Roche that more than 30 shots were needed to kill the eight tigers, according to a conversation Roche taped during the investigation.

The tiger and two lions not killed in the warehouse did not last long. Kapp shot them days later at Roche’s farm after an undercover agent agreed to purchase the tiger hide for $500, prosecutors allege.

After the slaughter, federal paperwork for customers was falsified to show the tiger hides he sold were “donated,” and the animals had died of other causes, such as cancer, hip displaysia, or an overdose of medicine, according to the indictments.

Animal dealers in Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma, as well as the Lantzes and Galecki, pleaded guilty to falsifying paperwork in the sale of endangered tigers and leopards. Martinez, Woldman and four Michigan men pleaded guilty to receiving tiger hides. Ramsey pleaded guilty to helping Kapp get and kill tigers. Laurie pleaded guilty to smuggling an endangered leopard skin from Africa.

The most severe sentences–6 months in prison–were imposed on Todd Lantz and Stoney Elam, an Oklahoma animal dealer. Other sentences have included house arrest, probation, and payments of up to $30,000, much of it toward the Save the Tigers Fund. Galecki, Martinez, Woldman and Ramsey are awaiting sentencing.

Federal investigators say they have documented Kapp’s involvement in additional killings of one tiger, three ligers (a cross between a lion and tiger), two mountain lions and two African lions.

Among those were Kon and Leonard, two black-maned African lions purchased from Eva Fryer of Walters, Okla. She said Kapp paid $1,200 for the lions and told her the animals were going to a breeding farm.

Several months later, federal agents came to Fryer.

“They told me they had found the carcasses,” Fryer said. The animals had been slaughtered and skinned, she said.

Fryer said she photographed the lions the day they were hauled to Springfield, Mo., and transferred to Kapp’s trailer.

“The tarp had come off the trailer on the way up and it had rained and the lions–Kon and Leonard were their names–had gotten wet. The wind blow-dried their manes,” she said. “They never looked more beautiful than they did that day.”



Big Game, Big Bucks, Big Trouble

By Sharon Cohen January 5, 2003

The trailer loaded with nine tigers and two lions rolled past the wire-fenced gates under the cover of night so no outsiders were around to see what was about to happen.  Heavy double doors lifted, and the zebra-striped truck that had hauled the trailer from Wisconsin entered the brightly lighted warehouse.

Two men waited inside with handguns.

The driver got out, carrying a stick. He poked it through the slats of the trailer to prod the trapped animals into position to make it easier for the shooters taking aim.

The gunmen opened fire, killing eight of the tigers.

Their work had just begun.

All three men dragged the bloody carcasses out of the trailer and onto the concrete floor. The shooters began skinning the tigers, then loaded them up for their final destination: an exotic butcher shop in another suburb of Chicago.

Operation Snow Plow TigerThere, the tiger meat, authorities say, was labeled as lion — which is legal to sell.

Two days later, the driver of the truck was frustrated. He still had a tiger and two lions in that load that had been rejected because they were too small. Now, he wanted to get rid of them.

“I’m gonna shoot ’em,” he warned, “and throw ’em in a hole!”

A Ruthless Black Market

This secret slaughter in March 1998, described in court records by two of those involved, was part of a ruthless black market: a ring that authorities say bought, killed and sold endangered species — tigers and leopards — for tens of thousands of dollars.

“There’s an old saying that if you can make a dollar off of it, there will be someone trying to kill it and sell it,” said Tim Santel, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who led a 4  1/2-year investigation that resulted in charges against 16 people.

The illegal trade in exotic and endangered species, from big cats to tiny beetles and butterflies, is a multibillion-dollar business.

Some are smugglers who cross international borders with fragile and sometimes dangerous animals: Komodo dragons in suitcases, pythons around their waists.

Others work inside the United States, trading in rare animals from roadside zoos and mom-and-pop game parks, specialty magazines and Internet sites.

The investigation led by Santel underscored a cruel reality: There may be more tigers in private hands in the United States than in the wild — and, chopped up for their meat and hides, they can be worth more dead than alive.

Santel and other wildlife agents documented the killing of 17 tigers, one leopard and one barasingha, an Asian swamp deer — all endangered — along with numerous African lions, cougars and ligers (a tiger-lion hybrid), which are not.

The cats were shot at close range while confined to cages or trailers.

Agents tracked a ring that spanned eight states — Illinois, Michigan, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Kansas and Missouri — and involved animal park owners, taxidermists and “trophy hunters,” whose only safari was into an underground that thrives on the slaughter of captive animals.

The ring shed light on a world where wildlife agents are spread thin, where tigers can be cheap — a litter might go for as little as $750 — and where the laws are filled with loopholes.

Even when traffickers are caught, critics complain, the punishment isn’t that severe.

“For the most part . . . it’s really just a slap on the wrist,” said Alan Green, author of “Animal Underworld,” about the trafficking of exotic and endangered species.

Judges and prosecutors aren’t necessarily to blame; federal guidelines limit the length of sentences.

Fourteen of the 16 people charged in this case have pleaded guilty; two await court dates. The charges included violating the Endangered Species Act, which addresses the killing, and the Lacey Act, which covers the sale and transport of these protected animals.

Of 10 people sentenced, Stoney Elam, former operator of an Oklahoma exotic animal farm, received the stiffest punishment: one year, half in home confinement. He also was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Save the Tiger Fund.

Elam sold two tigers and three leopards to an undercover agent for $4,800, then falsified the paperwork to make it look as though it were a lawful donation.

It is a federal violation to sell endangered animals across state lines, but donations are permitted.

Todd Lantz, the driver who delivered the cats to the warehouse and brokered another deal involving four tigers that were later killed, was sentenced to five months in prison and fined $5,000.

His wife, Vicki, who pleaded guilty to aiding in the tiger sale, received six months of home detention.

Despite the success of this case, Green said it is hard to get prosecutors to make such cases a high priority.

“If a wildlife agent goes to a district attorney and says, ‘I’ve got a case of a guy who killed a tiger,’ they’ve got a guy who’s moving tons of heroin,” he says. “Is the tiger that important in their mind?”

An Important Tip

Tim Santel got the call in 1997.

An exotic-animal dealer in southern Illinois said she had heard that people in the Chicago area wanted to buy big cats to shoot for their skins.

Santel frequently gets tips, but as one of about 240 wildlife agents across the nation, his resources are limited.

But Sherry Roche’s tip — with its suggestion of cruelty and commercialization — turned out to be worth pursuing.

To infiltrate the ring, wildlife agents posed as big game hunters, a hired hand, an interior decorator and animal dealers.

Working with informants, the agents gained the confidence of the traffickers, transporting animals, making deals and witnessing the falsifying of records.

Money was the motive for most of those involved.

But some were collectors — including Robert Martinez, a family practitioner who lives in Palos Heights, Ill.

He is a hunter, but in this case, his “hunting” amounted to killing four caged cats; he pleaded guilty to shooting the endangered one, a black leopard. In his plea, Martinez said he paid $6,000 to buy the four animals, and admitted killing a tiger in a trailer.

He sometimes posed with his kill: According to an affidavit, he showed undercover agents a photo of himself with the dead tiger and pictures with bears he said he had illegally bagged in Russia and Canada.

Martinez declined to comment, but his lawyer, James Valentino, said the doctor “got caught up with this idea of having these mounts.”

That attitude isn’t unusual, said Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC North America, the wildlife trade monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund.

“It’s a status thing,” he said. “There’s this mentality that I need to have one of everything in my trophy room.”

A Life or Death Decision

To build their case, wildlife agents used video cameras to conduct surveillance, and even installed one inside a trailer used to haul animals.

They faced a dilemma. As Don Burleson, a wildlife agent who posed as a hired hand put it: “How many animals do you let them kill to document it?”

A decision was made: Once an agent had witnessed the killing of an endangered animal, investigators would try to intervene.

On April 1, 1998, Burleson got a grisly, firsthand look.

The setting was Roche’s farm as Burleson watched the two warehouse shooters — Kevin Ramsey, who pleaded guilty, and Bill Kapp, who awaits trial — kill the two lions and the tiger that had been rejected just days earlier, according to records.

Agents tried to save animals before others could get to them: They paid Tim Rivers, who also pleaded guilty, $1,750 for a panther and pair of black leopards.

An Excess of Tigers

There are just too many tigers.

Experts say there may be as many as 10,000 captive-bred tigers in private hands in the United States — compared with as many as 7,500 in the wild.

A tiger can be bought for $1,000 or less. Its parts can generate a lot more.

In Santel’s case, the hides of two tigers and one leopard were sold for $10,500 to a Michigan man who pleaded guilty. Meat was sold to the market for about $3 a pound; depending on the cut, retail prices approached $15 a pound. Internal organs were saved, believed destined for the Asian medicinal trade, which is also a lucrative market for tiger bones.

A full tiger skeleton can be worth more than $61,000, according to an estimate in a 2000 TRAFFIC report.

The huge growth in tigers prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998 to relax its rules for generic tigers: the offspring of different subspecies, such as Bengal and Siberian.

To streamline the paperwork, people with these generic tigers no longer needed permits to sell them across state lines; Santel said the new rule did not change their protected status.

But Scott Kamin, a lawyer for Kapp, maintains that generic tigers are not the endangered species protected by federal law — and plans to use that as Kapp’s defense.

The only other person awaiting trial is Richard J. Czimer Jr., president of Czimer’s Game and Sea Foods, a third-generation exotic meat market in Lockport, Ill.

After being charged this year with buying and selling the meat of endangered species, Czimer protested his innocence, saying animals brought to his shop had been skinned. “The meat doesn’t come with stripes,” he said.

His lawyer, Alan Bruggeman, now says in most cases, Czimer thought he was buying lions.

But Kevin Ramsey, who helped deliver animals to the shop, said in his plea that Czimer was present while he and others skinned and gutted cats, including a leopard.

Wildlife agents visited Czimer’s, bought meat labeled lion and sent it to the agency’s forensic lab in Oregon. A third of the items tested turned out to be tiger.

A Pragmatic View

Word of this case has spread in the small world of people who deal with exotic cats.

Agents say they hope the convictions will be a deterrent, but they are pragmatic.

“We’re not going to cure the world,” Burleson said. “As long as there’s money involved, people will try to make a profit. We know we can’t stop it. But hopefully we’ve got them looking over their shoulders now.”

This leopard was one of at least six animals rescued by Fish and Wildlife agents during an investigation into illegal trafficking of endangered species.Todd and Vicki Lantz, owners of an animal park in Cape Girardeau, Mo., after appearing in court. Both pleaded guilty to animal trafficking charges. Fish and Wildlife agent Tim Santel, with confiscated stuffed tigers and a leopard, led the 4  1/2-year investigation. Richard J. Czimer Jr. stands near a board listing some of the unusual meat sold in his family butcher shop, Czimer’s Game and Sea Foods, in Lockport, Ill.