Why You Should NEVER Do Business with J. Craig Stewart, the Urban Reptile, and the Story of My Centralian Blue Tongue Skink.
As stated in the 2020 in Review Blog Post, I had my eyes on a pair of Centralian Blue Tongue Skinks, Tiliqua Multifasciata. The pair that was represented was by a multi-million dollar, 25+ year operation out in Canada. The operator of this business is a family led by patriarchal J. Craig Stewart (the devil). The story they were pitching was the Centralians came from a reputable and captive breeder out of mainland China who has at least two unrelated breeding pairs. That individual made the decision this season to sell holdbacks from a 2016 litter to a legal importer/exporter out of Hong Kong. That individual is the reputable contact The Urban Reptile uses when doing international business with the Chinese market. Ultimately, I only have this story to go off of, but The Urban Reptile is based out of Canada has been around for over 20 years, so I trust them. At least that was my mindset at the time. From the research I could gather, The Urban Reptile is the second largest reptile operation in Canada. Because of their professional status, longevity, and business practices that existed and carried over from a time when international trade laws were more lenient, in addition to the national import/export laws exclusive to Canada, we were able to use The Urban Reptile’s fish & wildlife license to legally import the Australian native species from China to Canada, and then from Canada to me in the US. 3 unrelated (plausible) breeding couples made it over the Pacific. I got a pair. The Urban Reptile kept a pair. And the third pair went to an anonymous, high-end collector in the US.
Now I’m not a naive fool. I’ve been listening to the chatter regarding the ethics within China’s reptile trade since I really started investing my time in this hobby and networking with interesting keepers and breeders outside the US market. In my experience, Hong Kong stands alone as a progressive city, featuring many ethical keepers in the hobby I have had the pleasure of connecting with over the years. With the global hobby growing, and the internet connecting us more, more care tips become available; I have seen an uptake in quality care throughout Chinese keepers. So I decided to move forward with the deal after putting myself in disbelief these were wild Blue Tongues and removed by unethical means. Overall, I was eager to give them the best home possible!
I am aware of a few US zoos that have Centralians. I did see a single couple, once, NFS (Not For Sale), at the Tinley Park NARBC (North American Reptile Breeders Conference) a few years ago. I know Brian at BHB Reptiles has one, Ty Park at Iguana land had a few he also got from China some years ago but has since dispersed his collection. Randy recently got a trio of babies in – that’s straight up like IT for the US market – at least those who make their collections known and public. I turned to Joe Ball in Australia, and he sort of laughed at me, “It’s a tough one mate to be honest… I don’t even know anyone who consistently produces them”. So the biggest guy in the entire global Blue Tongue game knows very little about them and he’s telling me they’re rare, even in Australia – great. But he does give me one name who responded and was very helpful. And he gave me another referral who responded. And another and another until there were 8 different herpers around the planet coaching me more or less on their needs to thrive in captivity.
One of the supportive findings on Centralians was their inability to cope with stress. It just depletes their immune system. Similar to a chameleon’s needs, temperatures and humidity have to be more precise all the time. The Centralians are tougher to ship, and more prone to getting the flu. So I half expected there to be some immediate needs upon arrival, but I was completely caught off guard and out of my element with what arrived.
First off, we had an agreed shipping date which Craig missed. He opted for a week later when it was 20 degrees colder. He insisted this was safer. 74F vs 54F. They arrived with watery and crusty eyes cramped into the same box, the male gasping for breath. Instinctively I just got them in their heated enclosure and wanted to let them be for 24 hours. There was food and water should they want to eat or drink, they could. But most of all they had heat. After giving them 24 hours to warm up and de-stress I wanted to reevaluate. Now I am not a trained veterinarian. And while I have kept several species for nearly two decades, including other species of Blue Tongue, I have yet to encounter a severe or prolonged respiratory infection. Any respiratory infection for that matter. Nor any skin infection. Nor had a full grasp of what I should be noticing in this one-of-a-kind lizard who may be unwell as compared to one in amazing health. I also understood the possibility they were mis-cared for the first few years of their mystery life and that can have long term implications for their wellness even after proper care is administered. Including my surprise when I realized just how small they were. I knew Centralians were smaller than Northerns and Irian Jayas but what is an acceptable range? But after 24 hours on closer inspection I noticed too many issues that seemed impossible to occur, just in shipping.
I contacted Craig immediately. I pointed out the eyes that were dripping, bubbling, or crusting over. The female has a swollen hand. The male cant breath out his nose and has thick mucus in his mouth. Craig insisted it was all shipping related. I told him I was going to see the vet and he requested an update after the vet visit. The vet visit was not cheap and just demoralizing with the findings.
Both had respiratory infections. Both had skin infections. Both had excessive hollowness to the bellies from starvation; alarmingly small. The male weighed just a 130-some-odd grams. That’s like a 50-day-old Northern. The male was severely dehydrated. The male had bacteria growing in its mouth. They also shed on this day. It was adding up why Craig missed our shipping date. The old skin coming to the surface changes their appearance and texture for a few days. In this case it was hiding craters of bacteria eating away at the male. A bacteria absent from our database of bacteria lending suspicion the bacteria originated in China and was disregarded the entire time in Canada – though I will admit not 100% conclusive. It also gave him further excuse why root the problems to shipping and not due to pure neglect and starvation in the multiple months in his care.
Back and forth we went. Medications, ointments, injectable vitamins, force feeding Carnivore Care, and all the while Craig not wanting to take any responsibility. He insisted. It was the vets doing and all shipping related. On day 11 I noticed the male had died in the night. Craig blamed the antibiotics my vet prescribed.
Part of our payment arrangement was wire transfer. Actually most was wire transfer. Part of the payment was processed through PayPal. I spoke to the banks and a lawyer. Unless both parties voluntarily agree to a resolution, the wire transfer is a done deal. No recourse. A very steep learning curve. PayPal though has a disputes center. I filed with them. It was challenging because Craig fought every step of the way, and PayPal is not a trained veterinarian. It’s hard for them to make heads or tails of the evidence. They asked my vet to submit secondary reports explaining his findings as they couldn’t make heads or tails from his lab work. They eventually concluded I would get one of my payments back, and I will get the other payment back if I return the lizard to him. With PayPal representing only a small sum of the total, I elected to keep the lone female in loo of the secondary partial refund.
I filed with the BBB of Ontario. They tried for two months to communicate with him. He elected to not participate in their inquiry, instead opting to lower his Better Business Bureau rating instead of dealing with my dispute.
I noticed Craig selling the pair he had elected to hold onto, or perhaps he even got another pair in. While he hadn’t responded to my messages in several months, I commented, “it would be nice if you used these to replace the sickly and dying ones you sold me for over 10 grand”. That comment lived in the public light for 24 glorious hours. In that time one individual who contacted me claimed to be Craig’s Hong Kong supplier. He was concerned for two big reasons.
- They always do business on a front. Guy in Hong Kong ships. Craig receives, sells, and sends back money before receiving the next shipment. Craig had been flakey on payments because he would report back to hong kong, “yeah these animals arrived sick. Customers are not paying, so I can’t pay you as much as we said.
- And now on this latest shipment, the one that contained my Centralians, Craig had defaulted on a $100,000 payment. And how he was ghosting the Hong Kong supplier too, while still selling the animals out of Canada.
So he’s stealing from Hong Kong. Then starving and neglecting the animals until they sell to keep his costs down. What a shining example of ethics.
In order to file with PayPal and the Better Business Bureau, I had to compile all my evidence. A further Narrative of Events, screenshots from out text history, photo evidence of the animals, testimony from my veterinarian, and more can all be seen here for anyone who would like to see everything: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1NvRceDTWqOdDgqPAZMbxoc0H8Uz7UqK2?usp=sharing