ATTICA – The 102 baby turtles taken from John P. Volpe’s basement and the dozens of stuffed birds he had in his home and shop are evidence of illegal activity, the state Department of Conservation says.
Volpe thinks otherwise. He considers the animals – the live ones and those he preserved – to be an integral part of practicing his native culture.
Speaking through a friend, on the advice of his attorney, the 62-year-old Volpe said the animals were not for sale. They were for ceremonies.
Volpe faces 190 counts of violating the state’s Environmental Conservation Law.
George V.C. Muscato, the lawyer who represents Volpe, sums up Volpe’s defense this way: “He’s not a dealer in anything. He’s a very spiritual Native American.”
Muscato called the matter “a First Amendment case in a lot of respects.”
Volpe was born in Ontario, and Canada recognizes him as a member of the Mississauga group of the Ojibwa, the lawyer said. The Ojibwa, called the Chippewa in much of the United States, historically was one of the largest tribes of native people in North America.
On Feb. 10, DEC officers and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent arrived at Volpe’s home with a search warrant and confiscated the baby turtles and dozens of taxidermy mounts. They also took a live wood turtle, considered in New York a “species of special concern.”
The species has a lesser level of protection than those designated “endangered,” the most strict, or “threatened.”
The federal agent also confiscated eagle feathers and an eagle staff.
Volpe was later issued a ticket, Muscato said. While bald eagles are no longer on the endangered list, they are covered by the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
None of the other animals confiscated from the property are on lists for special protection.
But that doesn’t mean just anyone can own a stuffed gull or robin. The birds are still covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and New York state laws that follow its provisions. Lawmakers passed the act in 1918, when birds of all kinds were being slaughtered to feed the demands of millinery shops, their feathers winding up as adornments on ladies’ hats. It was about that time that the once-common passenger pigeon became extinct.
In announcing the raid, the DEC explained it remains a violation to possess certain wildlife, dead or alive, without a permit or license issued by the state.
“Mr. Volpe was not able to produce any type of permit or license, and therefore could not lawfully possess any of these items,” the agency said.
Michael Bastine, a friend of Volpe who also has native heritage, spoke to The Buffalo News on his behalf and in his presence. Bastine disputed the right of any government agency to interfere with ceremonial items. Native Americans who are members of federally recognized tribes are granted exceptions of varying degrees to many hunting and wildlife laws, he said.
“We live with these animals on another level,” Bastine said. “In our culture, animals do ‘speak’ to us. We learn from and teach each other. It is wrong if we don’t honor that gift.”
Volpe, a taxidermist, keeps many stuffed animals in his shop: coyotes, wild turkeys, and some bears. He said he loans them to native groups for ceremonies, and he also does commercial work on deer and other legally hunted game.
Bastine said, and Volpe agreed, that none of the birds of prey or other confiscated mounts were hunted. They were already dead when found, and people brought them to Volpe. Bastine also said his friend has donated many mounts to parks and nature centers, where he has taken part in wildlife talks.
“With the taxidermy,” Bastine said, “in our understanding, when you preserve an animal, you preserve its teachings. It’s the remaining element of this ambassador.”
Most painful, though, was the loss of the eagle feathers that were hanging in a sweat lodge on Volpe’s six-acre lot, and an eagle staff.
Bastine, who was called by a neighbor to Volpe’s house when the officers arrived in February, said, “The federal agent went down to the sweat lodge and told John to take down the eagle feathers. When John wouldn’t do it, the agent started cutting them down and dropping them on the ground.”
Such treatment of the feathers, which hold sacred meaning in native tradition, is equivalent to sacrilege.
Other Native Americans gave the feathers to Volpe to preserve for ceremonial use, Bastine said. Under the right conditions, the transfer of the protected feathers is allowed.
According to the Fish and Wildlife website, “Native Americans may wear feathers legally in their possession or make them into religious or cultural items for their own or tribal use. They may transfer feathers to tribal craftsmen to be fashioned into such objects. (They also) may give feathers or other eagle items as gifts to other Native Americans.”
While it is illegal for non-natives to possess the feathers, the website says the service’s efforts focus on those who are illegally killing the birds and profiting from them.
It also says that officers who find people using a few feathers as “personal or religious items will generally take no actions if the individuals possess a valid service permit or reasonably demonstrate that they are a member of a federally enrolled tribe.”
Fish and Wildlife Agent Lee Schneckenberger said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of Volpe’s case since it was ongoing. Schneckenberger said it is his understanding that Volpe is not a member of any federally recognized native tribe or of any tribe in Canada.
Volpe’s lawyer intends to argue that he is a member.
In the meantime, Volpe still has a couple of live turtles the DEC did not take.
He also has ceremonial clothing, some turtle rattles, a few masks and a staff with feathers, but not from eagles. Since these items weren’t taken, Volpe can talk about them.
“We still use all these, everything,” Volpe said. “We use them in the sweat lodge. The ceremonies are for our religion. It’s not entertainment.”
According to the DEC, Volpe could have avoided the violations by obtaining the required state permits for possession and rehabilitation of the animals. He was cited in 2005 for having two live birds he was rehabilitating. Volpe said he began the process to get a permit, but found it to be a Catch-22, in that he needed a state permit before he could get the federal permit. But the federal permit required him to have all necessary state permits first.
When contacted about Volpe’s case, the DEC responded by email that “Volpe was charged with 190 counts of unlawful possession of wildlife. These are violation-level offenses of the Environmental Conservation Law, carrying a penalty of up to $250 in fines and up to 15 days in jail for each count.”
But the agency would not grant an interview about specifics of the case.
In a letter to the Batavia Daily News, Chris Krtanik of East Bethany said he has known Volpe for more than 20 years and has witnessed several meetings between Volpe and DEC officials.
“John helped DEC senior wildlife biologist Kenneth Roblee, Region 9, Buffalo, locate wood turtles in the field in order to attach tracking devices to study their migrations and also to be able to draw blood for DNA studies,” Krtanik said.
He also gave agency officials information about eagles’ flight patterns in relation to planned wind farms, and helped design and build a mechanical deer for the DEC to use to nab poachers.
Asked about their relationship, the DEC responded via email: “Mr. Volpe is not a formal consultant for DEC. Regardless of any prior voluntary interactions with the agency, it is a violation of New York state law to possess certain types of wildlife without proper permits and licensing.”
Volpe said his research into turtles shows some troubling trends, an opinion echoed by some mainstream researchers. He said that many of the young turtles he has seen can’t raise their heads, meaning they would drown when swimming. Between 60 and 70 percent are born with damaged or missing kidneys and other deformities, he said. The cause or causes are unknown, but Volpe said that, like frogs, the turtles are in decline. Their conditions could be an early environmental warning, he said.
He added his interest in turtles stems from their importance in native legend and culture, along with their scientific value.
“Turtle Island is how we refer to the earth,” Volpe said. “This is about where we live.”