Christopher Casacci is in the business of selling cats, but it's not the domestic ones that landed him in federal custody Thursday.
Prosecutors say Casacci trafficked in African wild cats – caracals and servals – and some of them died in his care.
Charged in a 33-count indictment, the Amherst man is accused of violating the Lacey Act, a federal law prohibiting the illegal importation and sale of certain types of fish, wildlife and plants.
Casacci, 38, is accused of operating a website, ExoticCubs.com, and unlawfully importing 18 caracals and servals, cats weighing up to about 40 pounds that are common to southern Africa, over a five-month period in 2018.
"There were multiple shipments into the United States," said Patrick Duggan, a trial attorney for the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Duggan said federal and state investigators learned of Casacci's illegal trafficking after receiving information from a potential buyer and seeing his website.
He said the cats had been sold by the time investigators intervened, and that most of them also are now dead.
"There were a number of cats seized that are currently in sanctuaries," Duggan told U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer. "There were also cats surrendered that are in sanctuaries."
He said some of the cats are still with buyers who live in states that allow for the ownership of African cats.
Casacci said little during his arraignment Thursday but, in the end, pleaded not guilty.
"He looks forward to examining the alleged evidence from the government, investigating and analyzing the allegations, and contesting each and every charge in court," defense attorney Nicholas A. Romano said in a statement. "Most importantly, the charges in the indictment do not allege any mistreatment, abuse, or neglect of any animal.”
Romano said his client, a lifelong Western New Yorker, is the former owner of the Exotic Cat Humane Society LLC.
During Casacci's court appearance, Romano said his client also sells domestic cats and was seeking court authorization to sell the six domestic kittens in his possession.
"It's a stream of income for Mr. Casacci," Romano said.
Duggan and Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango did not oppose Casacci's release with conditions, but they asked the court to delay the sale of the six kittens until they can determine if those sales are lawful.
"It might be OK for him to sell six kittens from out of his house," Mango said. "We just don't know."
The charges against Casacci stem from an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Environmental Conservation and could result in fines and prison time.