The sun is blazing down when I meet endangered Galápagos tortoises for the first time. They look like modern-day dinosaurs, lazily ambling around on scaly, dusty bowlegs. I proffer a carrot to the largest of the three—a 300-pound female—who grabs it with strong, beaklike jaws, neatly splitting it in two. After consuming it she extends her long neck forward, inviting me to gently rub her under the chin.

This intimate encounter takes place nowhere near the wild deserts of the Galápagos Islands—I’m more than 3,000 miles away, in a white-fenced suburban backyard in Long Island, N.Y. The three tortoises crawling around me—“Peewee,” “Maxine” and “Tony”—belong to Michael Soupios, a smiling, bespectacled 67-year-old graduate adviser and professor of political science at Long Island University Post.

Soupios has spent years studying Galápagos tortoises, and easily rattles off facts about their history in the wild—from past and present population figures to the latest efforts by scientists and nonprofit organizations to replenish their numbers. He says he keeps them out of a concern for the species’s conservation. His tortoises appear healthy and content—a reflection of their keeper’s obvious conscientiousness and caring. But Soupios worries that other owners might not be as dedicated to their animals’ well-being. “The goal for me is to educate others about these wonderful creatures, one day being able to give some of the tortoises I breed to zoos,” he explains. “I’m concerned the only reason some people want to own Galápagos tortoises is to make money.”

Across the U.S. amateur herpetology enthusiasts—whether motivated by conservation, profits or both—are able to own, breed, sell and trade Galápagos tortoises and other exotic reptiles due to gaps in federal wildlife laws that make this relatively easy. Nor do these laws provide a systematic legal structure for wildlife officials to crack down on mistreatment or neglect by private owners. Several experts with insight into the U.S. pet reptile industry say it is a big moneymaker that often puts wild animals in the hands of people underequipped to care for them—and that can sometimes cause tortoises to succumb to malnutrition, disease and death. Although federal agents closely track the population of exotic mammals kept in captivity—on the premise of animal welfare and human safety—no such nationwide laws exist to safeguard the well-being of comparatively uncuddly reptiles.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Soupios is one of 77 people authorized to trade captive-bred Galápagos tortoises in the U.S. last year with what is called a Captive-Bred Wildlife Registration (CBW). Buyers and sellers of endangered animals require a separate FWS interstate commerce permit when a transaction occurs across state lines.

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) the FWS can only issue these permits to people committed to conservation efforts for rare species. A FWS permit Web page warns applicants that “using protected species as pets is not consistent with the purposes of the ESA, which is aimed at conservation of the species and recovery of wild populations.” Many wildlife experts and activists believe this is too vague, however, making it easy for unqualified individuals to get permits—and thereby opening the doors for abuse and commercial exploitation of some of the most vulnerable animal species on Earth—including Galápagos tortoises. Just 15,000 of them, belonging to 11 of the 15 original subspecies—all of which are listed as VULNERABLE to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED by the International Union of Conservation of Nature—remain today. More than 100,000 tortoises were killed (largely for food) during the 17th through 19th centuries by pirates, whalers and sea merchants.

Whereas the intention of CBW registrations and interstate commerce permits is to allow qualified individuals to take part in conservation efforts, experts acknowledge that not all who apply for these certifications have the goal of conservation in mind. “CBW registration is for education and conservation breeding, not the commercial pet trade. But there certainly is a small group of tortoise enthusiasts, private owners or breeders, who are interested in the money side,” says Timothy Van Norman, chief of the FWS’s international permitting branch. He says some tortoises may be abused, but regularly screening and prosecuting for mistreatment is not within his agency’s purview.

Unlike mammals and birds, Galápagos tortoises and other reptiles are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act. This law specifies that owners and breeders of animals—including exotic and endangered species—used in commercial exhibition, research, trade and transportation must maintain a minimum standard of care so as to ensure the animals’ well-being. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is tasked with enforcing this, and may periodically inspect permitted facilities that might also hold Galápagos tortoises. But their welfare as such is generally not monitored in the U.S. “There is no federal program or effort for managing Galápagos tortoises other than the CBW,” Van Norman says, adding that the tortoises registered annually under CBWs do not account for all captive Galápagos tortoises owned in the U.S. “There is no federal permit [required] to own the tortoises, so there are probably more out there than we have accounted for.”

The FWS requires a $200 application fee for the CBW and $100 for an Interstate Commerce permit, and lists applications on the Federal Register for public comment. FWS asks applicants how their animals will be used for educational, scientific and/or captive breeding programs that contribute to species conservation. This is intended to lower the risk of mistreatment and deter people involved in the pet trade. States and municipalities may require additional permits for owning endangered and exotic wildlife, regulations also meant to discourage abuse and commercial exploitation.

According to FWS data, since 2002 the agency received 112 CBW permit applications, denying 11 and partially approving five. Together the approved and partially approved permits allow for the trade of up to a maximum of 830 Galápagos tortoises throughout the U.S. This excludes the number of tortoises owned and bred—but not traded—by reptile hobbyists. Because people with expired CBW permits are still permitted to own and breed Galápagos tortoises, according to Van Norman, “There are probably more out there than we have accounted for.”

Soupios says breeding, trading and keeping Galápagos tortoises is neither easy nor cheap: “The permitting process is rather time-consuming—as is tortoise care—and of course it costs a lot of money to set up the proper housing for these creatures and feed them.” But he says his commitment to Galápagos tortoise conservation outweighs the time and expenses of keeping his animals. “I have a real love for the species and want to educate others about them, and I can do that by owning them,” he says.

Soupios says he paid around $7,000 to purchase his young male tortoise, Tony. Adult females like the two he owns—Peewee and Maxine—can be worth upward of $20,000, whereas adult males can be worth up to $60,000 because they are less readily available on the market. Like many tortoise and turtle species, the sex of hatchling Galápagos tortoises depends on incubation temperature—and higher temperatures mean more females. Many Galápagos tortoise transactions occur online. “I believe most Galápagos tortoise owners have the species’ wellbeing in mind, but there are certainly some people who are in it for the money, ” Soupios says. “I’m aware there is an industry around their sale, but making money is not, in my opinion, what the purpose of owning these animals should be.”

Despite FWS’s regulation of the endangered species trade, even a quick online search for “Galápagos tortoises for sale” suggests a certain amount of commercial activity. On a Web site that lists classified ads for about two dozen tortoise species, one recent notice for a three-year-old female Galápagos reads: “Produced in 2013, this is a stunning animal, looking very female. 16 pounds and 15 inches long. Perfect. Nevada sales or CBW only please. $9,000.” Although many of the ads focus heavily on aesthetics—smooth shells, large size—none mention a commitment to conservation, a quality of sale supposedly vetted by the FWS for all endangered species.

In another online post, a reptile breeder in Florida encourages interested individuals to “Join Mailing List for Hatchling Notification” of the breeder’s Galápagos tortoises, and displays photos of dozens of palm-size hatchlings and enormous adult for sale—some of which clearly have “pyramided,” or spiked, shells. This condition is indicative of malnutrition and is a common sign of poor care, according to Lorri Cramer, wildlife rehabilitator and director of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society. The organization cares for sick or illegally obtained turtles and tortoises in New York City. “Galápagos tortoises should have nice, rounded, dome-shaped shells,” Cramer says. “Pyramiding, a condition that makes shells bumpy and misshapen, can be a sign of improper diet, climate or habitat.”

Cramer has not yet been called to rehabilitate a Galápagos tortoise, but says she has recently been involved in “many” seizures and surrenders of African spurred, or sulcata, tortoises—the third-largest in the world at about 200 pounds (90 kilograms)—mostly because they get too big and expensive for people to care for. “People tend to buy turtles and tortoises when they’re small and cute. At that age, people don’t acknowledge how large they grow, how long they live, how much room they need or how much food they eat.” Galápagos tortoises can grow up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms), and more than 150 centimeters long.

Concerned that the FWS permitting process might not be effective enough, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has issued a petition calling for amendments to ESA regulation. The amendments would increase FWS oversight activities, raise the bar for endangered species ownership and increase transparency during the permitting and public comment process. Potential and existing Galápagos tortoise and other exotic wildlife owners would be better screened with more extensive application questions before being permitted to buy, sell and breed animals, and would have to pay more to apply. These changes, HSUS hopes, would raise the bar for exotic animal ownership, increasing the chances that only qualified people focused on conservation are awarded permits. “The FWS is understaffed and has serious limitations on their resources, and their permitting office in particular is inundated with applications, which we think has led to the less-rigorous analysis than we would prefer,” says Anna Frostic, senior attorney for wildlife and animal research at HSUS.

Soupios’s tortoises feast on fresh-cut grass, dandelion greens, carrots, homegrown hibiscus blossoms and imported cactus flowers. They always have access to bowls of fresh water—“Poland Spring, the same as I drink,” Soupios says. He has built a large, heated shed with skylights and a set of full-spectrum UVA and UVB bulbs to help keep his tortoises healthy. He says he has a vet he trusts on call at all times.

Some involved in Galápagos tortoise conservation say private owners like Soupios, who spend the time and money necessary to provide their animals with adequate care, should not be stigmatized for owning endangered animals. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums Galápagos tortoise Species Survival Plan Program director Ed Louis, who also oversees conservation genetics at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, says private individuals who breed Galápagos tortoises help stock zoos, where the tortoises serve as ambassadors of ongoing conservation work in the Galápagos Islands.

The U.S.-based Galapagos Conservancy is one of the major international organizations working to protect and increase populations of wild Galápagos tortoises. The group’s goal is to bring the reptile’s wild populations back to historic numbers—meeting or surpassing 100,000 individuals—by analyzing ecological challenges that confront the species in the Galápagos Islands, and then initiating programs to help repopulate the various subspecies native to each island. Some of the organization’s ongoing projects include eradicating invasive rats that eat eggs and hatchlings, conserving habitat by controlling invasive plants and breeding the animals at three nurseries set up on the islands.

Yet critics of the current FWS permit requirements say private individuals’ ownership and trade in Galápagos tortoises detracts from on-the-ground conservation efforts like those of the Galápagos Conservancy. Some insist that most private individuals who own the endangered reptiles do so to further their own interests—not to help save the species.

“The fact that many nonexperts have endangered Galápagos tortoises in their backyards and claim to be contributing to the conservation of the species is very, very suspicious,” says Lisa Wathne, HSUS’s captive wildlife specialist. “Unfortunately, ‘conservation’ is a common excuse for those who can afford it to keep wildlife as pets.”