In October 2011, an undercover officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arrived at David Feltenberger's "Big Lake Fish Farm" in Okeechobee. Feltenberger was sentenced last week for conspiring to export turtles.
He had a license to keep hundreds or thousands of softshell turtles, snapping turtles, chicken turtles, striped mud turtles, eastern river cooters, Florida cooters, peninsula cooters, Florida red-bellied turtles, common musk turtles, and yellow-bellied sliders for the purpose of letting them breed in a giant tank so they could be sustainably sold.
But the FWS thought Feltenberger might be catching wild turtles and shipping them off to China, where endangered sea turtles are enjoyed as food and medicine. So the undercover agent brought along 23 turtles -- each of them marked with an electronic tracking device.
Feltenberger, 51, the farm's proprieter, directed an associate to put all the turtles into rubber containers except for one: a common snapping turtle, which he threw into the breeding pond. The rest, which were more valuable, were prepared for shipment.
The undercover agent later said that while he was at the farm, "other individuals arrived and unloaded 232 lbs. of soft shell turtles." The heavy ones went into bins, the little ones went into the pond. Then everyone went to Feltenberger's house to get paid, the agent said. From his affidavit:
On October 27, 2011, at approximately 2:48 p.m., a vehicle traveled from the [farm] to the loading dock of a commercial cargo air carrier at Orlando International Airport with a shipment of 3,025 lbs. of live turtles... Upon arrival at LAX, law enforcement agents located and inspected the shipment of turtles. During the inspection, they identified 12 of the 23 turtles... by their electronic devices. The shipment was later consolidated with other shipments of turtles consigned for export to China.
Feltenberger later switched from plastic bins to a concrete holding pen that could be drained to collect the turtles for shipment, according to his associate Christopher Craig, who seems to have cooperated with authorities and who avoided the conspiracy-to-export charges.
The U.S. attorney filed suit against Feltenberger in May, and he pleaded guilty on July 16. He was sentenced last week to 90 days in jail, 90 days of house arrest, three years of supervised release, a $20,000 fine, and 250 hours of community service.