A Kelowna woman whose nickname is “Turtle” was fined Friday morning after she was caught in a B.C. Conservation Officer Service sting operation trying to sell an “at-risk” Western Painted Turtle on the Castanet classifieds.
Spouses Monica and Dwayne Skublen were both charged under the Wildlife Act in March with the unlawful possession of live wildlife and trafficking in wildlife. But after Monica pleaded guilty to the unlawful possession charge, Crown prosecutor Jessica Saris dropped the other charges.
The charges stem from a complaint to the Conservation Officer Service back in March 2022, after a person noticed the turtle ad on Castanet's classifieds.
The ad read: “Michelangelo – Aquatic turtle for sale to good home.” A price of $250 was listed.
A conservation officer went “undercover,” reaching out to the seller of the turtle on April 1, 2022. The officer spoke to Dwayne Skublen, who said a friend had found the turtle in their garden nine years prior, and Dwayne had given it to his wife Monica as a birthday present.
The officer then spoke to Monica on the phone and told her possessing a painted turtle was not allowed, and there could be “trouble” for selling and buying it. But Monica told the undercover officer the turtle was a pet and it would be the same as selling a dog. She also said she'd had another turtle, but it had died four years prior.
She agreed to meet up at the Kelowna PetSmart on Banks Road on the afternoon of April 3 and accept $200 for the turtle.
When she arrived, the officer once again tried to warn Monica about the illegality of possessing or selling the animal.
“The undercover officer told Mrs. Skublen that he had done some research and found the turtle was wildlife and what they were doing was illegal,” Saris said. “The undercover officer told Mrs. Skublen that there could be a big fine if they were caught, or jail, and then he asked Mrs. Skublen if she still wanted to continue with the sale and she did.”
After they exchanged the turtle for an agreed-upon $200, two other conservation officers approached the Skublens at their car and informed them they were under arrest. No handcuffs were used, as the pair were cooperative, and they were not taken into custody.
At the scene, Dwayne told an officer that he had been given the turtle nine years prior, and had come to understand it was illegal to possess a painted turtle in the last couple of years. He said they'd had another painted turtle as well, but it had died. He noted it was his wife's idea to sell the turtle.
The turtle has since been taken in by the BC Wildfire Park in Kamloops. During its intake, staff there said the turtle was much smaller than it should have been for its age.
The charges against the couple weren't laid until March 27, 2023, close to year after the sting operation.
The Western Painted Turtle is listed as a “species of special concern” under the Species at Risk Act. An ecosystems biologist wrote a victim impact statement in the case, noting the already limited gene pool of the species is impacted when an individual is removed from the wild and raised in captivity.
Conservation officer Ken Owens said there is only 800 to 1,000 Western Painted turtles in B.C., and it's the only native freshwater turtle in the province.
While the maximum penalty for possessing wildlife is up to $100,000 and a year in jail, Crown prosecutor Saris sought a $500 fine, noting Monica's very early guilty plea in the matter.
But Monica's defence counsel Stan Tessmer sought a fine “as low as possible,” given the circumstances of the case. He said his client loved Michelangelo and she took good care of it over nine years. He said she was not aware the turtle was "at risk," and she only sought payment for the animal so that she could be assured it would go to a good home. Tessmer said after nine years, Monica had been struggling to care for the animal on her own.
Judge Michelle Daneliuk said she was “struggling” with the idea that Monica was unaware it was illegal to possess the turtle when her husband had admitted to learning it was illegal to possess a painted turtle a couple years earlier.
Ultimately, Judge Daneliuk handed down a $350 fine for the offence.
Following sentencing, conservation officer Ken Owens said he would have liked to see a larger fine “to see it act as a deterrent to other people.”
“Every year, especially in the spring time, we are receiving calls about people going to the local ponds and possessing Western Painted Turtles ... so it does occur,” Owens said. “Hopefully something like this will prevent other people from doing this.”