By Polly Keary, Editor
It is tough to sneak a live animal through customs. Any motion or sound can tip authorities off to the presence of an endangered species being sold on the black market.
So the turtle dealers that traded with Nathaniel Swanson of Gold Bar taped the feet, arms and head of the animals into their shells and stuffed them in socks.
A lot of turtles died, but the ones that lived made the traders a tidy sum.
It has also landed them in prison.
Swanson, 36, who once owned a reptile store called Swanee’s Exotics in Monroe, as well as a store in Everett called Seattle Reptile, was sent to federal prison for a year for his role in an international reptile smuggling operation.
According to federal prosecutors, Swanson for about four years dealt in turtles and other reptiles with a group of traders in Hong Kong. Swanson collected rare specimens and arranged for export.
The majority of the species that Swanson helped smuggle out of the country were Eastern box turtles, North American wood turtles and ornate box turtles. He also helped export Gila monsters and other box turtles.
Swanson also helped illegally import protected turtles; one, the Arakan forest turtle, was once thought to be extinct, and is critically endangered.
Some of the animals, such as the ornate box turtle, are typically sold as pets. Others, like the extremely rare Arakan, are sold as food or for purported medical properties, as well as for pets.
As many as 70 percent of the reptiles intercepted on their way into the country by wildlife inspectors were found dead.
Swanson, according to prosecutors, got about $60,000 for his part in the conspiracy.
Swanson’s pet stores, which included Swanee’s Exotics and Seattle Reptiles, got harsh reviews on internet review sites.
Some turtle lovers took exception to the way turtles were housed at his Everett store.
“It’s dark and smells and the animals are kept in very small and dirty containers,” one visitor wrote in 2012.
Others suspected that the turtles weren’t bought from breeders but instead were illegally-caught wild turtles. And many reported that the animals there were sick, even dying within hours or days of purchase.
One visitor was brought there by friends specifically to see the conditions of the animals, and reported seeing small snakes kept in clear plastic deli cups and displayed near the cash register for sale, other snakes kept in very crowded tubs, and aggressive turtles kept with delicate lizards. And the store was selling snapping turtles, the visitor said, even though the sale of those turtles is illegal in Washington.
In his own defense, Swanson told that court that he and his wife had fallen on very hard times, and that they had lost a house to foreclosure.