A notorious animal smuggler has been fined thousands after one of Australia’s top courts ruled that his $45,000 sentence would be impossible to pay.
Niall Cooke, 30, was before South Hedland Magistrates Court last September where he was fined $45,000 for hiding a number of reptiles – including a turtle, skinks and snakes – in his car when he was stopped by police. apprehended on the Great Northern Highway in Western Australia back in 2019.
Cooke was charged with a number of pet trafficking offenses after police and biodiversity officials found a black-headed python tucked into a pillowcase in the center console of the Toyota Kluger and four pygmy spiny-tailed skinks crammed into the liner of a backpack next to a plate of turtle.
Police also found another backpack in the trunk containing a venomous Pilbara death adder in a cooking pot.
Cooke hadn’t even started paying off his $45,000 fine when he appealed to Western Australia’s Supreme Court this month.
Niall Cooke (pictured) was fined $45,000 last year after being convicted of another animal smuggling offense
Cooke had $28,000 shaved off his fine after a judge ruled it would have taken him 18 years to pay off
His lawyers argued that the sentence given to the animal smuggler by magistrate Gavin Maclean was excessive.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed with Cooke’s claims, and Judge Amanda Forrester reduced the fine to $17,000.
“A fine totaling $45,000 was completely beyond the plaintiff’s ability to pay, either immediately or within a reasonable time,” Judge Forrester told the court.
“Even if he could resume his payments as previously planned, it would take 18 years to pay that amount, let alone the other outstanding fines.”
Justice Forrester said the crimes seemed “opportunistic” and the animals had only been with Cooke for a few days.
“One had been in the plaintiff’s possession for four days, but others had only been in his possession for one or two days,” she said.
Cooke’s lawyers told the court his motives for keeping the animals were solely for photographic purposes, claiming he only wanted to take pictures of the reptiles before releasing them.
Magistrate Maclean disputed this claim, telling the court during his verdict that he believed Cooke had wanted to keep the wildlife for himself.
“The whole point of taking these animals was to keep them and that is the basis on which he will be sentenced,” Magistrate Maclean said in his September 2022 sentencing.
A black-headed python (trunk) was found in a pillowcase in the car’s center console
Police also found a backpack in the trunk containing a highly poisonous Pilbara death adder (broth) in a cooking pot
Before being convicted of smuggling the snakes and turtles in September, Cooke told the ABC in May 2018 that he was on a better path and was trying to stay out of court.
“I got caught, I pay the price, I pay the fines and there’s a whole new chapter in life now,” Cooke said. ABCs 7:30 am.
His 2019 conviction was the third time in five years that Cooke had been convicted of animal smuggling in Australia.
His criminal record with convictions contains more than 40 charges.
One of his more serious convictions involved boxing a number of reptiles in January and June 2014 and shipping them from Western Australia to Melbourne.
Cooke faced further charges under the Wildlife Conservation Act in 2016 and 2017 over allegations that he had smuggled 80 illegal reptiles.
Magistrate Maclean warned Cooke that if he continues to smuggle animals he could soon be sent to prison.
“That’s something you might want to keep in mind, apart from your activities as an animal activist, Mr. Cooke. If it continues like this, you will go to prison,” he said during his September 2022 sentence.
“In the future, if he engages in such behavior, in my opinion he should certainly be charged with animal cruelty, which carries a real prison sentence.”
Cooke was found with a plate of turtle (broth) in his car less than a year after telling the ABC he was done smuggling animals
Four pygmy spiny-tailed skinks (broth) were crammed into the liner of a backpack next to the plate turtle