FWC rule on license removal draws ire

Concerned captive wildlife owners filled the Hilton UF Conference Center in Gainesville this week to sound the alarm about a new Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) rule they say could cost them their permits. 

At a two-day FWC meeting starting Tuesday, the board listened to dozens of people who wanted to learn what constituted a violation, where the list for those warnings could be found and how they could avoid losing their captive wildlife permits. 

The commission then passed the motion to approve rule language that would prohibit the transfer of a permit to a family member or employee that was revoked due to rule violations.  

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FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto addressed the audience prior to the rule’s passage and explained what it actually states.

“The only modification that’s happening to this rule that says that if you are in violation, when you try to transfer your permit to your wife, or your husband, your son or your daughter—we’re not going to permit that, because that’s how people game the system,” he said. “They get caught, there’s a violation, and they’re no longer the permanent holders and they transfer it to their wife and they keep conducting business.”

At the FWC’s December meeting, a press release stated the final rule language included: 

  • A licensed individual who has had their captive wildlife permit or authorization revoked or not renewed may not continue to benefit from the facility or animals previously authorized under the permit and an individual authorized under a corporate license that has been revoked or not renewed may no longer be involved with the care, feeding, handling or husbandry of any captive wildlife under the corporate license. 
  • Prohibits the sale or transfer of the facility or animals previously authorized under the permit to a person or facility of which the permittee is an officer, director, principal, employee, or agent or in which such person holds any interest. 
  • Includes time periods for lawful disposition of animals in their possession, record keeping requirements and restrictions concerning to whom the animals may be transferred. 
Yellow-marginated Box turtle
Yellow-marginated Box turtle  

Distressed pet shop owners and people involved with captive wildlife permits filled the conference room to question how to work with the FWC and not lose their licensing when warnings or violations are spotted.

Barreto told a story about such an abuse that occurred in Florida in recent years. 

“So we just had a big case where someone was a habitual offender here in Florida, and he violated, and transferred [his permit] to family members, and he ran out of family, and he finally gave it to one of his workers,” Barreto said. “And then he was so egregious, he left the state of Florida and went to Virginia and did the same thing in Virginia. And a whole bunch of zebras got off his property and got hit by cars, caught up in fences, got in some snare out there, and killed the animals. [It was] all over the news up there. And they wanted to know why in Florida we allowed them to keep transferring the license. And that’s all this rule is doing. There’s only one rule and that’s what we’re talking about, that rule right there is what this vote will be today.” 

Points brought up during public comment included warnings issued by FWC agents that, even when addressed, could still result in a permit being revoked, leading to animals being confiscated or stores being shut down. Speakers talked about a point system based on the severity of violations.

Stephen Brezil lives in Jacksonville and owns Xtreme Exotics pet store, along with running a wildlife refuge zoo in St. Augustine, and said this happened to him.

“[The FWC] actually pulled my permits that were incorrect when we were building the zoo and they were rezoning the property and things like that,” Brezil said. “They came and said we want these cages built differently, we want these cages farther forward, we want all that. I said that’s fine. So they write you a bunch of warnings for that and when we started building the zoo, COVID hit, so everything was delayed.

“I had to submit things to the FWC that I said, look, fencing is backed up nine months and here’s the email from the company and [the FWC] said we’re good with all that, and at the end, [the FWC] just wiped us, and wrote all these violations and stuff and were super rude about it and said we’re going to start pulling your animals. I’m like, we talked about this for nine months, we talked about COVID holdups, we talked about expenses and, as a non-profit, we can only do so much.”

Brezil added if he loses any more licenses over the next few months, he is looking at moving his business to Texas since it supports his family and employees.    

Baby “Coral Motley” Corn snake
Baby “Coral Motley” Corn snake 

“The FWC appears to have ramped up its denials and revocations of captive wildlife licenses,” said Daniel Parker of USARK FL in an email to Mainstreet Daily News. “The actions by FWC staff seem to demonstrate a strategy of denying licenses based on paperwork errors and other technical violations not related to the actual care or well-being of animals.

According to Parker, the FWC rule 68A-6.003 does the following:

  • Deprives small business owners involved in the keeping of reptiles and other animals of due process rights and private property rights. 
  • Makes it easier for FWC to revoke or deny licenses and confiscate animals.  
  • Punishes associates of reptile keepers for violations committed by other people.  
  • A business owner’s license could be revoked because of a violation by its employee. 
  • A family member’s freedom to keep animals may be infringed because of a violation by another family member. This would be as if an entire household of people were to have their driver’s licenses suspended because one member of the family had their license suspended.
  • In its “Notice of Proposed Rule,” FWC acknowledged that, “The Agency has determined that this will likely have an adverse impact on small business.” 

Sean Jacobus of Orlando, owner of Southeastern Reptile Protectors LLC, as many as 200 reptiles at his facility and feels like the FWC is going after the responsible reptile store owners. 

“Say you have 500 reptiles in this facility, and that an FWC agent can show up at any time in a 90-day period, Monday through Friday, and a business time is the only time you’re given, and they can show up and you can’t refuse the investigation,” Jacobus said, who has both a Class 3 and a Prohibitive Species permit that if you deny a voluntary inspection, you can lose your permit and, according to the new rule wording, can lose your animals.

“And you let them into your facility, they walk around a 500-reptile facility and find one one gram piece of poop and say that’s a violation. And now you can lose all of that. That’s not legally sound at all. That’s literally government overreach at its finest,” he said, adding that the FWC shouldn’t be allowed to take away everyone’s private property for a rule violation. 

Jacobus added that, unlike other measures being addressed at the two-day FWC meeting, there were no rule books provided to clarify what constitutes a violation.

Barreto pointed out the FWC intends to work with permit holders.

“I heard a lot [today] and know you’re very passionate, and I also heard that a couple of you said that we haven’t worked with you, which I think kind of has happened,” he said. “I mean this has been going on for a while, but I don’t think that’s a correct statement saying that we were not working with you. I would say that our staff really tries to work with our stakeholders over and above, and nobody wants to take your livelihood.”

Barreto said he is aware that improvement is needed in some areas. 

“And with what’s being proposed today, we all have issues with how the penalties work and that’s something we still have to work through, but that’s not what we’re talking about today,” he said.

Kate MacFall, Florida senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, was happy with how the meeting turned out.

“The chairman did a great job of clarifying what actually was being voted on, what actually was being discussed, and fortunately it passed,” she said. “I think his clarifications and his common sense, interjections and guidance proved very helpful to the entire crowd.”

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