Pet shop owner hopping mad

Battle: A Rockville woman jumps into the fray after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources claims that she is selling native frogs illegally.

January 16, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Mess with Ruth Hanessian's frogs, mess with Ruth Hanessian.

The state Natural Resources Police went undercover last year and ticketed the Rockville pet shop owner for allegedly selling native frogs without a $25 permit.

The state says the frogs are as Maryland as William Donald Schaefer.

Hanessian says that unless her supplier snatched the tree frogs from a swamp here, smuggled them to Shanghai, China, then brought them to Maryland and charged her $2 apiece, the DNR is all wet.

Actually, she uses much stronger language.

"This whole thing is asinine, and he's a little jerk," she says of the bureaucrat -- whom she characterizes as faceless and nameless -- who launched Operation Pet Shop. The six-month sting snagged and ticketed 25 stores in 11 jurisdictions.

Hanessian will confront her accusers in Silver Spring District Court Feb. 2.

Two pet shops in Prince George's County were found guilty in District Court Wednesday of selling native amphibians without the required $25 permit. Columbia Kennels and Pet Center in Seabrook and Tropical Fish City in Laurel each paid $50 fines.

On Jan. 8, five Anne Arundel shops went to court on the same charges. Two paid the $120 fine, and three refused.

Judge James W. Dryden found APet in Annapolis not guilty, and charges against the other two were dropped on a technicality and could be refiled.

"I'm not pleading guilty to something I didn't do," says Jack Hresko, owner for 30 years of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie. "We don't sell anything local, and we didn't buy them off some kid who walked in the door with them."

Richard McIntire, a spokesman for Natural Resources, says, "If the frogs are of the same species, it doesn't matter where they came from. You have to have the permit. The 1993 regulations were not intended to prevent people from enjoying the beauty of the species; it was meant to protect them."

Jack Cover, curator of rain forest exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, says Hanessian brought him a frog to inspect in November.

"I could tell her what it wasn't," he says. It wasn't a hyla cinerea, the green tree frog native to Maryland.

But whether the frog Cover examined was the same as the frogs allegedly found by the undercover officer, who can say?

Meanwhile, in Rockville, the battle lines are drawn. The local Kiwanis Club has started a "Free Ruth" fund. Hanessian has a lawyer, and she's not about to blink.

"It's a criminal citation, and I'm not a criminal. Besides, I know more about frogs than they do," says Hanessian, 60, who has a zoology degree from Cornell University.

Few pet shop owners have been as openly defiant, but their anger spills out in private conversation.

Douglas Pugh, whose frogs came from Singapore by way of New Jersey, paid his fine in Hagerstown District Court Tuesday rather than spend $600 to $1,000 on a lawyer.

"It took a lot for me to go in and do that. I have a lot of professional pride," says Pugh, owner of Pugh's Petcetera in Hagerstown and Chambersburg, Pa.

Pugh, immediate past governor of Kiwanis for Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia, says the encounter has soured him on the DNR.

"I have lost tremendous respect for that office and its bullying tactics," he says. "It's a shame to make us the enemy."

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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