Snakes on a plane: For inspectors, this is normal

Anchorage airport an especially lively post for wildlife officers

Posted: Monday, March 08, 2010

ANCHORAGE - The legends grow over time: There's the case of the women who tried to hide a bear gall in her bra cup; the sad tale of the live monkey shipped with snakes, and the chronic sea horse importer.

Every time Chris Andrews opens a package or inspects a passenger in his job as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspection officer at Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport, he chances an even more bizarre find.

Andrews has worked at the airport, one of the busiest cargo ports in the world, for more than 10 years. He's pretty much seen it all. He and the state's three other inspectors are federal law enforcement agents charged with inspecting wildlife imports and exports.

Stationed at major airports, ocean ports and land border crossings across the United States, wildlife inspectors spend most of their time checking cargo shipments for illegal cargo - living and dead - but also search international travelers for products made from animals listed as threatened or endangered by national or international regulations.

Anchorage's airport is an especially lively posting. Two million metric tons of cargo passes through the airport every year, a refueling hub and U.S. gateway for flights from Asia that was last ranked as the fifth busiest cargo airport in the world.

That translates to lots of wildlife and very busy inspectors.

"Last year we made more seizures than JFK airport in New York," says supervisor Andrews, who joined the force in 1997.

They average at least one seizure per day. Most come from commercial cargo packages but some come from international air passengers clearing customs at the airport.

"About 90 percent of the passengers don't think they're doing anything wrong," Andrews says. "Though when someone brings in a mounted sea turtle you would think that they would know better."

Sometimes inspectors see repeat offenders, like the woman who tried over and over again to bring in boxes of dried sea horses (valued for medicinal properties in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan but illegal to import) to Anchorage.

Seized items are kept in a nondescript warehouse off of a suburban road near the airport. The complex includes a walk-in freezer where evidence materials in ongoing illegal poaching cases - such as carcasses of bears and walruses - are kept.

"It's pretty disgusting," says Steve Smith, who manages the evidence collection. "I've had agents come in with nothing but a bag covered in blood, or a bag full of livers."

There's another room of evidence. It's a macabre museum of wildlife trafficking: There's a purse made out of a monitor lizard from North Africa, hemorrhoid cream made from endangered musk deer, bottles of clear liquor from Thailand with whole snakes suspended inside.

"Snake wine," says Andrews with a sigh. "We see tons of it."

The collection includes a large whale vertebra, commercially canned whale meat, elephant toenails, leopard jackets and the skin of a python and a bottle of bear fat.

The collection, used by agents for educational presentations at schools and community groups, is "the tip of the iceberg," according to Smith.

Wildlife inspectors, who often have backgrounds in biology or zoology, must be able to quickly identify hundreds of species of animals. When live animals are recovered, Andrews and his staff become zookeepers.

"It's exciting to talk about live animals, but once you discover them you've got to, you know, get a cage and figure out what this thing eats," he says.

He says that some of the saddest cases he's seen involve live animals shipped as cargo, including a monkey in a cage shipped with taped-up snakes. The snakes got loose and killed the monkey.

Inspectors must also be able to deal with unhappy travelers whose rare coral and ivory souvenirs are being confiscated. It took "quite a while" for Andrews to learn how to best deal with passengers.

"I try to remain calm and just tell them, this item is prohibited," he says. "Instead of giving you a fine I'm going to allow you to surrender it."

Penalties can range from confiscation with an appeal process in court (people rarely appeal, Andrews says) to jail time and fines of more than $100,000.

A few years ago, American hunters traveling from Alaska to the Kamchatka area of Siberia to hunt bears became a problem when they started bringing back exotic souvenirs like ring seal skins and bear claw necklaces.

"We had to actually start giving briefings because the tourist souvenirs they were bringing back - well, we could fill up this room," Andrews says. The briefings tended to make the hunters better at hiding things.

"We had a couple of ducks roll out of a bear hide one time," he says.

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