Most people never noticed the flying squirrels in Florida’s woods. Even after hundreds, then thousands, of the small, brown rodents started disappearing, many of their human neighbors didn’t suspect anything was wrong. The squirrels sleep during the day, only emerging from their nests at dusk to glide—not actually fly—from tree to tree, covering up to 160 feet with each leap and executing magnificent loops and turns in pursuit of acorns and hickory nuts. Their chirps, often emitted at frequencies outside the range of human hearing, are easy to miss too.
Yet the flying squirrels were in trouble.
Florida wildlife officials allege that the animals, which number somewhere in the tens of thousands in the state, are being poached from people’s backyards and funneled into the nation’s largest flying squirrel smuggling enterprise. Seized financial documents and maps indicate that as many as 10,000 squirrel traps have been set in the state during the past five years in Florida, where it’s illegal to take them from the wild in almost all circumstances.
At the center of the crime operation, they say, is Rodney Crendell Knox, the 66-year-old owner of Knox Farm, in Bushnell, Florida, a licensed breeding business for alligators, turtles, and flying squirrels. Charged with racketeering, scheming to defraud, dealing in stolen property, and more, Knox is in jail awaiting trial and could face up to 30 years in prison. Through his lawyer, he declined to comment. Five other men, including three who admitted to trapping squirrels and two alleged couriers, were also arrested and are awaiting trial.
Flying squirrels have gained popularity as exotic pets, sold in the United States and abroad, despite the fact that they’re high-energy, nocturnal, wild animals. Legal exports of flying squirrel from the U.S., however, are not particularly big business, says Neil Gardner, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S Fish and Wildlife’s Atlanta office, which oversees the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico. But the illegal trade may be much larger. “The illegal trade is like with narcotics and guns: If we don’t know it, we don’t know,” Gardner says. The case, authorities say, illustrates how legal, captive-breeding operations are used as a front for trading illegally trapped wild animals.
“If it crawls or flies in Florida, and there’s a market for it, and it’s legal, I’ll catch it…and if I can’t, I’ll figure a way,” Knox told state wildlife officers during a scheduled inspection of his farm last year that was recorded on a police body camera.
Unknown to Knox at the time, wildlife officials had been investigating him and his associates for months. They used phone records, cell phone tower data, GPS trackers on cars, and more to build a case that alleges that thousands of southern flying squirrels, valued collectively at as much as $500,000, were snatched from Florida’s woods, passed through a legitimate pet store with fraudulent paperwork, and then shipped to South Korea to be sold as pets.
Police reports, court documents, interviews with law enforcement officers, and hours of police body camera footage obtained by National Geographic through public records requests detail the inner workings of Knox’s alleged enterprise, as well as previous wildlife violations spanning several decades. Most of those violations weren’t prosecuted or were settled with small fines.
An anonymous complaint
The investigation into the alleged flying squirrel poaching ring began with an anonymous complaint. On January 15, 2019, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline received a report that people in a pickup truck were trapping flying squirrels in Rainbow Lakes, a subdivision in Marion County in central Florida.
Southern flying squirrels are abundant throughout the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, and although poaching hasn’t threatened the survival of the species, large-scale declines in the squirrels’ numbers could disrupt ecosystems. The animals help renew forests by dispersing seeds in their feces, and they’re prey for raptors such as owls and racoons.
Officer Wayne Hargabus was dispatched to the scene. Pulling up behind a gold Ford F-150 truck with Florida plates, he saw two middle-aged men near the truck and a wire cage crowded with flying squirrels in the truck bed. There were also many homemade squirrel traps, which can be mistaken for wooden bird houses.
Wild flying squirrel trapping is a misdemeanor offense in Florida that can lead to a 60-day prison sentence, so Kenneth Lee Roebuck, 59, and Donald Lee Harrod, Jr., 49, were read their Miranda Rights, which include the right to remain silent. Nevertheless, they agreed to talk to Hargabus and two other officers without lawyers present. Hargabus says the men acknowledged having 31 squirrels in the truck and that they’d placed about 350 traps on trees in the area. They were catching flying squirrels to sell to Rodney Knox, they said.
Later police analysis of Knox’s financial records and business transactions found that one of his biggest clients is a company in South Korea, where small, furry wild animals such as flying squirrels are becoming increasingly popular as pets.
After the interview, the officers released the men without filing charges and set free the 31 squirrels, but they left the traps so they could watch for illegal activity.
That same day, two wildlife officers went to investigate further at Knox Farm. Behind the farm’s white sign that features a chicken, a duck, and an alligator, they found 177 flying squirrels, which Knox said he’d bought out of state to breed legally.
That explanation wasn’t credible, according to George Wilson, who is supervising the ongoing investigation. All the squirrels were held in a single wire cage measuring less than 92 square feet—nothing like the separate cages, each with food, water, and wooden nesting enclosures, typically used for breeding. The officers cited Knox for failure to comply with cage size regulations—the cage was seven times smaller than the size specified for that many squirrels—and he paid a $350 fine.
About a month after that, Harrod and another man, later identified as 40-year-old Vester Ray Taylor, were recorded by a homeowner’s surveillance video system trapping squirrels around that person’s house in Weeki Wachee, in Hernando County, Florida.
At this point, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission scaled up the flying squirrel investigation. They called it Operation Triple Play—a nod to how he allegedly used his three state permits—for commercial captive breeding, aquaculture, and alligator farming— to make illegally caught wild animals look legitimate.
They obtained warrants to put GPS tracking devices in Harrod’s truck and three other vehicles: Knox’s 1998 silver Dodge pickup, Knox’s wife’s 2013 blue Dodge minivan, and a 2003 white Ford registered to Vester Ray Taylor. They also got warrants to access Knox’s and Harrod’s cell phone call records and cell tower data so they could determine whether Knox and Harrod were in the vicinity of the cars at the time illegal trapping was taking place.
Officers monitored more than a half-dozen incidents in early 2019, detected with GPS and cell phone information, and backed up by admissions from an informant in Knox’s circle who participated in some of the trapping.
The cell phone tower data indicate that in each case Harrod or others were the ones doing the actual trapping. Knox—or at least his cell phone—was in Sumter County, where he lives, not in Hernando or Marion Counties, where the trapping was taking place.
Harrod, Roebuck, and Taylor did not respond to requests for comment through their lawyers.
Years of infractions
Knox told wildlife officers during the recorded 2019 inspection that over the years, along with flying squirrels, he’s sold snakes, chickens, turtles, alligators, pigs, armadillos, possums, and even dried plants used in flower arrangements. (With proper permits, depending on the species, such sales are legal in Florida.)
Some animal sales, however, led to citations. During the 1980s, Knox was charged with illegal possession of a reptile and illegal sale of a gopher, Wilson says, but the charges were dismissed. More incidents followed. In 2006, for example, he was charged with buying toads, turtles, and snakes without proper permits. He paid more than $2,400 in fines.
In the late 2010s, before Knox’s flying squirrel business raised a red flag, authorities zeroed in on his alligator business. At inspections of Knox Farm they found that his records indicated that from 2016 through 2018 more than a hundred alligators had disappeared. Knox told inspectors that his alligators were being stolen.
Record-keeping discrepancies, however, are a hallmark of animal trafficking, so authorities continued to investigate.
At one point, inspectors counted more than 800 alligator eggs on the farm, a biological impossibility given that at the time there were only six breeding nests and that an average clutch of alligator eggs is about 10 eggs. Knox had no records of any transfers of alligator eggs into his facility.
When authorities tested the DNA of Knox’s breeder alligators, they found that at least seven hatchlings came from an illegal source, which led to seven felony charges alleging illegal possession and an eighth felony charge of forging inventory documentation.
Florida court records indicate that the state prosecutor’s office did not pursue the case, and Knox incurred no penalties.
According to Florida wildlife officials’ affidavits, there was also a pipeline to Knox Farm of several species of protected freshwater turtles. He bought wild-trapped turtles from an informant six times between February and July 2019, telling the informant he’d buy anything the informant could catch and offering $10 per foot for live alligators, $5 to $7 for turtles, and $8 for flying squirrels.
Destination South Korea
Flying squirrels appear to have been at the heart of Knox’s business. Seized financial records suggest that in recent years he had one primary buyer—a company called Hayyim Creative, based in South Korea. Between November 20, 2017, and April 1, 2020, Hayyim Creative paid Knox $213,800 for more than 2,000 flying squirrels.
Counting earlier sales to Hayyim from 2015 to 2017, Knox received at least $500,000 for thousands of flying squirrels, says Grant Burton, who heads investigations for the law enforcement division of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Florida authorities say Hayyim Creative, headed by CEO Nacle CS Baek, was likely selling the flying squirrels as pets. The company’s website features a smiling Baek with a flying squirrel perched on his shoulder. Baek’s biography page on Hayyim’s website says he “lived with 200 exotic pets for 10 years in his studio apartment” and that he founded his company in 2009.
Neither Baek nor Hayyim Creative responded to requests for comment.
In South Korea, flying squirrels are featured in anime and pet cafés. Baek has created short films for children starring the animals, and in a series called "4inchers," which Baek described as Mission Impossible for small pets, the cast includes a flying squirrel called Moong, a hamster, a hedgehog, and a bird that engage in escapades against a cat.
Flying squirrels look cuddly and appealing, with their soft fur and big eyes, but they make for difficult pets. “They open up hickory nuts and acorns with their teeth—so they have a good bite!” says Susan Loeb, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service. And they’re nocturnal. “When everyone goes to sleep, the squirrels start making a lot of noise.” They may bite their owners or be a danger to other pets in the house.
“I’m not a fan of people taking wild animals as pets,” Loeb says. There’s also a health risk. Sylvatic epidemic typhus is a rare bacterial disease transmitted from flying squirrels to humans that causes fever, body aches, vomiting, and other flu-like symptoms.
It’s impossible to tell whether specific illegally traded squirrels make people sick. “Animals illegally taken from the wild have no traceability and are often comingled with legal animals,” Burton says. Such illegal trading adds to the risk of widespread zoonotic disease, he says.
During last year’s inspection of his farm, Knox was recorded telling wildlife inspectors that his buyer wanted as many flying squirrels as possible.
The squirrels were transported to South Korea in a way that obscured their original source, Wilson says. They would change hands repeatedly en route. “Everything was siloed, so one leg of the operation didn’t know about the other participants,” he says.
According to arrest affidavits, a courier employed by Hayyim would drive the squirrels to Georgia, where another driver would pick them up and take them to Small Fury Pet Supply, Inc., a licensed pet shop in Chana, Illinois. Small Fury would fill out the export paperwork following Hayyim Creative’s guidance, to make the exports appear legal. The shop would then send the squirrels by air to South Korea, where a Hayyim Creative employee took possession.
“Hayyim was aware [the animals] were wild-caught by Knox,” Wilson says.
Small Fury’s owner, Steven Fox, declined to comment. He voluntarily turned over his company’s records and emails and is cooperating with the investigation, according to an affidavit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Wilson declined to comment on whether the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will press charges against Hayyim or Baek.
The future of Knox Farm
When the police arrested Rodney Knox on April 22, 2020, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission employees released the 11 remaining flying squirrels on Knox Farm back into the woods. The property is in his family’s care until the conclusion of his case.
Knox lost the legal front for his flying squirrel business months earlier, when the commission denied his renewal request for his captive breeding business, citing repeated wildlife infractions.
That left only his turtle and alligator businesses, which require separate permits.
But in August 2020, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency that oversees turtle aquaculture licenses, told Knox Farm that it intended to revoke his turtle breeding license.
Knox’s annual alligator farming permit comes up for renewal with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in December. Wilson says its revocation is under review.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com