'Operation Slither' Yields Over 1000 Reptiles

'Operation Slither' Yields Over 1000 Reptiles

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A sting operation in search of reptiles being kept or sold illegally led to a lot of confiscations and one trip to the hospital for a snake bite.

"Operation Slither" was conducted on Friday, part of a sting aimed at stopping the illegal possession and selling of reptiles. Search warrants were served on two Salt Lake County homes and one in Davis County. One home included more than 1,000 reptiles.

State and federal wildlife officials confiscated about 100 illegal animals and several computers for evidence. Among the species collected were Gila monsters and several varieties of snakes.

Law enforcement officials also visited another home, where a resident was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake.

"We didn't have enough information for a search warrant, but we talked to someone at the house and were invited in. A person was handling a rattlesnake when we walked in and he was bitten," said Rudy Musclow, chief of law enforcement for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "He went to the hospital, but we don't believe the snake injected any venom. That is part of why we don't allow people to have venomous snakes."

It is against the law to collect or possess venomous snakes in Utah without a permit. Nonvenomous reptiles were also seized because it is illegal to collect animals with limited distribution in the wild.

The two-year investigation came to a head when state and federal wildlife officials simultaneously served search warrants in Utah, Arizona and California on Friday morning. No Utahns were arrested Friday, but the suspects could face charges of unlawful possession and collection of reptiles and Lacey Act violations for interstate commerce of protected wildlife.

Conservation officers are accustomed to dealing with strange environments when serving warrants, but Friday's job was a little more interesting than the rest.

"Whenever you serve a search warrant, you feel uncomfortable because you are invading someone's private space, but this was a residential house with 1,000 snakes in it. It was really hot and uncomfortable, and there was quite an interesting smell," Musclow said.

Lt. Mike Fowlkes said the snakes will be held as evidence, but that they would be taken care of.

"We have professionals to feed them and keep them healthy for as long as it takes," he said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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