New York Man Posing as Rescue Organization Charged With Trafficking Exotic African Cats

A New York man will spend 18 months in prison for trafficking exotic African cats after he posed as a big cat rescue organization.

Christopher Casacci, 39, of Amherst, was sentenced in the Western District of New York for violating Lacey Act and the Animal Welfare Act by trafficking African wild cats, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The man, who was previously indicted in January 2020, operated the website where he advertised, imported and sold African cats.

Casacci imported and sold dozens of caracals and servals between February and June of 2018 for between $7,500 and $10,000 each. All of the transactions occurred while the animals were kittens; the animals were marketed as house pets despite their "wild nature" and size, the DOJ said.

"Selling wild animals as pets not only breaks the law, but also endangers local communities and environments," said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). "The Department of Justice is dedicated to protecting the public and our native wildlife from the irresponsible actions of wildlife traffickers."

According to court documents, Casacci said that he was operating a big cat rescue organization to avoid New York's law against possessing and selling wild animals. The statute says that no one can knowingly own, transfer or import a wild animal as a pet in the state.

Kenyan Safari Serval
A New York man will spend 18 months in prison for trafficking dozens of exotic African cats after he posed as a big cat rescue organization. Pictured: A Serval walks through grassland on December 12, 2007 in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In an attempt to avoid detection, Casacci falsified transport documents to hide the cats' exotic species and claimed they were domestic crossbreeds similar to Bengal cats or Savannah cats. He was also prohibited from selling the animals because he lacked the proper authorization under the Animal Welfare Act, and showed minimum compliance with treatment levels.

The law states that those whose business is in animals are required to comply with humane care standards established by the act. Multiple cats died under Casacci's care or in the days after he sold them, and many living ones were seized during the investigation, prosecutors said.

"The purpose of the Lacey Act and the Animal Welfare Act is to protect fish, wildlife and other animals, especially those that may be endangered, from individuals who seek to profit from trafficking," said U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross for the Western District of New York. "Enforcing these measures is important to ensure that animals, such as the exotic African cats in this case, are safeguarded."

Caracals, sometimes called desert lynxes, are wild cats native to Africa and grow to be around 45 pounds. Servals are from the same continent and reach up to 40 pounds.

Both species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), according to the DOJ, and it is illegal to possess or sell them under New York state law.

The animals taken from Casacci are under the permanent care of accredited animal sanctuaries.

"Wildlife trafficking is decimating the world's natural resources, so it is essential we work with our partners to put a stop to these types of illegal activities. This will help protect against risks to human health and safety and to native wildlife and their habitats and ensure future generations can enjoy and benefit from our cherished wild heritage," said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement.