Inside Report: Turtle seizure case not quite finished

Each year for more than a decade, Robert “Bob” Zinn would file applications to renew wildlife permits to continue to house and study the 115 box turtles he’d taken in over the years.

It was an annual rite of winter since 1999 that ended last year.

It’s been more than nine months since state Wildlife and Fisheries agents raided Zinn’s Baton Rouge home — unlawfully according to him, lawfully according to them — on April 2, seizing 103 of his 115 box turtles.

Those turtles were family to Zinn. Some had names, such as “Grandma” and “Cupcake.”

Zinn claimed the agents overstepped state and federal law.

“They seem to feel like they can go anywhere at anytime and do practically anything without going through court,” he said. “They seem to exercise extralegal powers greater than the sheriff and the police department, and nobody seems to have called them on this.”

And he is wavering on whether he will be that person or not.

He has thought since June, after prosecutors dismissed his citation, about suing the agency over the raid but has not fully committed to that course of action.

He said Wildlife and Fisheries officials told him in a meeting he requested that he would be allowed to obtain his wildlife rehabilitators permit if he applied for one.

That is another option he is mulling over.

But they reminded him that he would be required to release any animal he brings home to nurse back to health.

He said the officials offered him the permit if he agreed not to take them to court again, but Bo Boehringer, press secretary for Wildlife and Fisheries, denies that assertion.

“No, that was never discussed,” Boehringer wrote in an email.

A wildlife rehabilitator’s permit — needed to house sick or injured animals — is one of two that Wildlife and Fisheries agents claimed Zinn lacked when they raided his home.

Agents claimed he also lacked a special-purpose possession permit to house animals native to Louisiana.

Zinn said he asked agents to show him a search warrant, but they allegedly said they did not have a warrant but insisted they had probable cause to search the home based on a prior visit. At that first visit, he had invited them in and they discovered some of the turtles were ill.

Zinn countered those permits had been granted every year until his applications for 2013 were denied for reasons he claimed were unjust.

The denial letter for the special-purpose possession permit that Wildlife and Fisheries officials sent to Zinn cited overcrowding, lack of natural food sources and natural vegetation and infighting within the colony. Officials said they also felt his research — he charted the animals’ growth, among other things, and posted the results on his website — did not rise to the level of academic research because it was never published in a scientific journal.

“I find it frustrating that 25 years of work has gone down the drain … for reasons I don’t know or understand,” Zinn said.

He sued in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, trying to get an injunction against Wildlife and Fisheries to have the turtles returned, but the suit was dismissed May 13. The judge did leave the door ajar for him to file again if he chose to.

Subsequent permit applications Zinn filed with Wildlife and Fisheries were denied, but he was victorious in one minor battle.

East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors decided in June not to pursue charges on the misdemeanor citation he received on the day of the raid for violating recreational box turtle regulations.

Ryan Broussard covers law enforcement for The Advocate. He can be reached at rybroussard@theadvocate.com