ATTICA – No one disagrees – it is a complicated case.
The matter of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation versus John P. Volpe involves Native American spirituality, environmental stewardship in collision with wetland pollution, and the battling legitimacy of different kinds of government paperwork.
On the state’s side, the paperwork appears paramount.
From Volpe’s perspective, the case is about his native culture and his passion – protecting the wildlife he has studied for years.
In the middle is Attica Village Justice Julie A. Perry, who Monday told a courtroom containing about a dozen Volpe supporters that she was postponing the scheduled hearing on the case because she needed more time to study its merits.
Perry will review the details behind a Feb. 10 raid on Volpe’s 6-acre property, where officers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent removed 102 baby snapping turtles from tanks in his house, dozens of stuffed birds from his taxidermy shop and eagle feathers used for native ceremonies from his sweat lodge.
The DEC charged Volpe with 190 violations of conservation law because the 62-year-old independent animal researcher does not have a state permit to possess the wildlife, dead or alive. None of the animals collected was classified as endangered or threatened.
Officials also contend that Volpe, who was born in Canada, does not have the correct U.S. documentation of his native heritage that would allow him to own some of the confiscated items. His attorney says Volpe has produced Canadian certificates of his Ojibwa ancestry.
In the six months since the raid, at least 90 of the turtles have died, according to an expert’s report to the state. The state expert attributed the high mortality to improper care when Volpe had the animals.
Before Perry announced the postponement, Volpe’s attorney, George V.C. Muscato, had planned to make the case that the DEC actions were a violation of his client’s religious beliefs.
“I use the term religion, because that’s how the Constitution sees it, but it’s actually also genetic,” Muscato said. “Every religion includes freedom of its expression in symbols. The (eagle) feathers are easy to understand, but in Native American culture they also express their spiritual connection with living things.”