A federal investigation of an exotic animal brokerage business in Minnesota has swept up menageries across the country, including Wild Eyes Animal Adventure and Photography, north of Columbia Falls.
A 55-count indictment charging Kenneth and Nancy Kraft, of Racine, Minn., and seven others with violating the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act was announced in mid-August by the U.S. Attorney's office in Minneapolis.
Included in the indictment were owners of two menageries in Montana—Wild Eyes-owner Hans Jacob Lueck, 50, of Shoreline, Wash., and Troy Allen Hyde, owner of Animals of Montana, Inc., in Bozeman.
Lueck was charged with four counts relating to both of the federal wildlife protection acts.
The Lacey Act prohibits the sale of wildlife with a market value exceeding $350 that are "taken, possessed, transported or sold" in violation of federal, foreign or state wildlife protection laws.
Paul Bernstein, Lueck's attorney in Seattle, said Lueck planned to plead not guilty by telephone at an arraignment in St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 14.
According to the indictment, in March 2000, Lueck paid $10,000 for a white tiger and $2,500 for a grizzly bear cub. In June 2002, he allegedly purchased a spotted leopard cub, a tiger cub, a raccoon and a wolf pup for an unknown amount of money in excess of $300.
The tigers, bear and leopard are protected species. The indictment claims the Krafts attempted to hide the sale of the leopard by calling it a "donation" and the sale of the tiger cub by calling it an "exchange or transfer."
Furthermore, the indictment claims, Lueck and Wild Eyes did not have U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-issued captive-bred wildlife registrations or any other permit for any of the protected species they possessed. Wild Eyes did, however, possess an exhibitor's license issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since November 1999.
All the protected animals cited in the indictment were allegedly sold by the Krafts through their Krafts Game Farm, Kraft's Animal Escapades and BEARCAT Hollow - an acronym for Beautiful Endangered and Rare, Conservation and Therapy. Sales were promoted through advertising on the Internet and in the publication "Animal Finders' Guide." The indictment claims the Krafts made more than $200,000 selling endangered or threatened animals from 1999 to 2003.
The Krafts were accused of making false records and false identifications for the protected wildlife they sold. According to an unnamed informant cited in the indictment, the Krafts allegedly tried to make the illegal sale of one protected grizzly bear appear lawful by declaring the animal to be a "Syrian grizzly."
The Krafts also allegedly tried to hide their illegal activity by claiming the transactions were a "donation" or "breeding loan" rather than a sale or transfer of the animals.
The indictment also charged Kenneth Kraft of witness tampering for allegedly instructing one purchaser to lie to federal investigators by claiming the animals were not illegally purchased but were legally "donated."
Lueck, the Krafts, Hyde and the other five named defendants face a maximum of five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine if convicted of conspiracy or the wildlife-related charges.
Wild Eyes, located off the North Fork Road near Spoon Lake, began operating in 1986 offering professionals a wide range of exotic animals for photographing - including Siberian tigers, timber wolves, Canada lynx, cougar and grizzly bears
Lueck and his wife, Ginger, purchased the facility after a visit to the area in 1998. Unlike the original owners, the Luecks opted to promote the facility to the general public. But two years ago, claiming they were being harassed by state wildlife officials in Montana, the Luecks began looking for a new home for their exotic animals in western Washington.
Apparently their business strategy changed again and, having survived a real threat from the Robert Fire last year, Wild Eyes continues to operate at the same North Fork location. Today, a large billboard sign advertising the exotic animal menagerie stands at the corner of U.S. Highway 2 and Highway 40, across from the Blue Moon Nite Club.
In the meantime, the Luecks are soliciting donations for their Wild Eyes Foundation, in Seattle, Wash. According to their Web site, the foundation plans to offer a sanctuary for exotic pets that have lost their owners; seminars on wildlife husbandry; participation in national and international captive breeding programs; veterinary and research programs; and education programs aimed at children.