By EMMALEE C. TORISK
On Monday afternoon, herpetologist Keith Gisser was still working to follow up on the largest snake seizure he and the Herps Alive! Foundation have encountered.
Typical seizures are of fewer than one dozen animals. But Friday’s confiscation of more than 100 snakes and lizards — a handful of which were venomous — from a home at 438 Fifth St. in Struthers was unprecedented, Gisser said.
“All we’re doing is taking the best care of them that we can,” he said.
Gisser added that a large number of the 97 snakes and lizards now being treated for mites and housed at the Cleveland Heights-based reptile rescue facility that started in 1976 likely could be put up for adoption if Joseph McCollum, 46, and Michele Barrett, 45, are found guilty. They face arraignment today on charges including child endangering, as well as violating city and state laws that pertain to the possession and sale of exotic animals.
Four poisonous snakes were transported for safekeeping to the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade, Ky., too, immediately after the seizure.
“Some of the boa constructors are in ‘designer’ colors, and there’s a commercial demand for them,” Gisser said. “The simple fact is if we do get title on them, just a couple of these animals would allow us to save dozens and dozens more.”
Both McCollum and Barrett remain behind bars — McCollum in the Mahoning County jail, Barrett in Struthers’ jail — and they will be arraigned at 9:30 a.m. today in Struthers Municipal Court. Barrett’s 12-year-old son, who was living at the Fifth Street residence, is now in the custody of a relative.
Police believe the two were selling the snakes via an Internet business — The Boa Store at www.boastore.com — out of their two-story duplex, said Detective Jeff Lewis of the Struthers police.
He added that the reptiles were found in almost every room of the residence, with their cages stacked from floor to ceiling. Police were tipped off by McCollum’s visit last week to St. Elizabeth Health Center after a rattlesnake bite. McCollum left before he could be treated, but a warrant was issued after hospital staff told police why he was there.
“It’s unbelievable,” Lewis said. “[McCollum] was very reckless in his handling of these animals.”
McCollum and Barrett allegedly had been selling the snakes online for about three years, Lewis said, though their website boasts more than 40 years of snake-breeding experience. In addition, McCollum’s YouTube account, joemccollum1966, features several videos of the reptiles, including the venomous Gila monster, on the loose in his house. Many of the videos were filmed by Barrett’s son.
Lewis said the next step is for police to obtain another search warrant that would allow the Bureau of Criminal Investigation to review McCollum’s email correspondence on his seized computers, then determine whether he shipped venomous reptiles over state lines, which would be a violation of federal law.
He added that McCollum admitted shipping nonvenomous snakes via FedEx — but said he allegedly had made all necessary arrangements with the company, including providing an empty shipping container for inspection beforehand.
Other violations include a lack of anti-venom for each species of snake owned, as well as a lack of signage on the entrances that warns visitors of the dangerous animals housed within, Lewis said.
Gisser indicated that Ohio’s recently enacted Dangerous Wild Animal Act — a far-reaching law that goes into effect Jan. 1 — further regulates the ownership, sale and permitting of dangerous wild animals.
“It’s important if people do have these animals that they not wait until the state finds them,” Gisser said. “They should be proactive in finding an appropriate solution, whether it’s keeping the animals themselves, finding a sanctuary for them, or surrendering them to the state.”