Steve Santhuff adopted his first turtle when he was five years old. It had taken up residence in his yard, in a dollhouse that his grandfather had made. As a child, Santhuff collected richly patterned common map turtles, and he grew obsessed with the beautiful, exotic species and their kin. More than thirty years later, his day job is management at a transportation company, but Santhuff’s passion is still turtles. At one point, he had more than 500, kept in some thirty five-foot-wide plastic tanks in his Lawrenceville backyard.
Santhuff went beyond collecting. For years he was what authorities call a “cooperating private individual”—an informant—helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service squelch illegal trafficking. Many species are endangered, especially as demand grows for turtle meat in Asian American communities. Santhuff worked to strengthen protection laws and even repopulate the wild—releasing hatchlings into their parents’ native habitats. “He was going to be Johnny Appleseed, except with turtles,” says Robert D’Agostino, a John Marshall law professor who has known Santhuff since his teens. Over the years, Santhuff estimates, he has spent close to $100,000 maintaining his collection.
In September 2004, Santhuff says, he received a call from a man who said he was a dealer wanting to buy plastic tanks. Santhuff informed the USFWS, which, Santhuff says, sent him $400 to see if this “dealer” would sell protected animals. In the parking lot of a Dawsonville McDonald’s, Santhuff purchased twelve black-knobbed map turtles. Santhuff did not realize that the “dealer” was actually an undercover officer with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Santhuff grew concerned when the USFWS did not respond to his reports. Months later both federal and state authorities showed up at his house and began seizing his animals. Parceled out to Georgia and South Carolina wildlife centers, hundreds of turtles died of infections. “They were in the wrong habitat,” Santhuff explains. “It was a big disaster.”
“It nearly destroyed me psychologically,” Santhuff recalls. “And it wasn’t just about taking the turtles. Why would they send me money, ask me to help them, and then set me up as if there was a crime?”
Four months after the seizure, Santhuff was arrested and charged with turtle possession. “I was facing twenty-one years in jail for having turtles I’d had for over twenty years,” he says, insisting that his protected specimens either had been obtained years before laws were enacted or had been held with the necessary permits. He says he refused a plea bargain: ten years’ probation, no animal contact (including dogs or cats), $40,000 in restitution. It was a gamble, but a Gwinnett jury acquitted him on all counts in February 2008. Eighteen months later, 128 surviving reptiles were finally returned.
Santhuff has since filed lawsuits against state and federal officials. One federal jury awarded him $88,500, which he says he hasn’t seen because of ongoing appeals. In another case, a judge ordered Santhuff to pay court costs for pursuing litigation after one of his witnesses was discredited. More suits are in progress. Georgia DNR maintains that Santhuff did not have the required permits and reserves further comment due to pending litigation.
Santhuff’s conservationist zeal is now guarded. “There are still some good officers,” he says, “because I have known them, and they have been my friends. But I will never know any more. Never.”
Photograph by Kendrick Brinson