Smuggled Birds Among Seized Animal Contraband at Airports

If you like getting souvenirs on trips out of the country, you may want to take a closer look at what you're bringing home because those buys could be illegal.

Each year, inspectors with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) seize millions of dollars in items made from animals banned in this country. From crocodile corsets to frog purses to snake gallbladders, much of those items will end up in a government warehouse near Denver.

The animal contraband is often brought in at airports by travelers who just don't know the rules, but sometimes by people determined to smuggle in animals including live birds from the Caribbean.

Click here to see a list of animals prohibited from entering the United States.

Sylvia Gaudio, an inspector with FWS, showed the NBC 6 Investigators how smugglers rig belts using hair rollers, medicine bottles and other household items to hide birds.

"A lot of people use these belts or they actually have pockets in their pants or their shirts and they stuff either [medicine bottles] or toilet paper rolls and they stuff the birds inside," said Gaudio.

Customs inspectors like Ashley Vaught, who work with specially trained dogs at Miami International Airport, say they're not shocked by what they find on travelers.

"He was smuggling animal parts for Santeria, sheep's brain, bird head, other various animal parts," Vaught said.

But the finds are especially frustrating for inspectors when the animals are endangered.

"We noticed the luggage was extremely heavy. We opened it up and we found a little baby tiger," said Gaudio as she showed the NBC 6 Investigators the dead animal, which was brought in illegally.

FWS inspectors also conduct random checks on cargo shipments trying to catch importers sneaking in animals with false paperwork.

The agency says one-third of these inspections will turn up a problem. From squid to crocodile, officers seized more than $16 million worth of animal contraband in Florida since 2009, and more than $60 million across the country. It can't all be stopped so these officers focus on animals most in peril.

"Viper and I actually find a lot of ivory here in Miami at the mail facility so people just think they can send ivory out or bring it in and Viper and I will be out to find it," said Amir Lawal, a canine handler with FWS.

A pound of ivory is so lucrative it's pushing elephant poaching to its highest levels in a decade. And that has many who own ivory looking to sell. But dealing in ivory is landing some South Floridians in court.

Dania business owner Raymond Reppert recently admitted in court he falsified customs documents to make it look like he was selling wood samples and resin carvings that were really ivory. Reppert wouldn't comment on the case.

Officers say consumers should know what it takes to create the items they buy.

FWS says an average coat might contain 15 to 20 wild cats just to create a single garment. That's something that worries those who see these purchases every day.

"Kind of a sense of dread in a way knowing that some of these animals even in my children's lifetime are not going to be around," said Doni Sprague, who manages the FWS warehouse of seized animal contraband.

Some of those items in government storage will be donated to museums.

Those who work with animal contraband say another reason the public should be concerned about this issue is that travelers and smugglers can bring in aggressive species that can invade our communities and throw the ecosystem out of balance, such as pythons in the Everglades.

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