Coming to big-city Miami from small town Missoula, Montana was a giant shift of sorts which became, in just one day, well worth the trauma of switching three planes and flying across the country in bad weather.
While folks were ready to roll early Thursday morning to go swamp wading, and Everglades exploring, we decided to go a little off the track and hooked up with Tom McKenzie, FWS' PR guy based out of Atlanta who managed to get us straight into the FWS office here in Miami. Equipped with our cameras and notebooks, the four of us, including Tom, accompanied FWS officials Eva Lara, Carlos Pages, and Javier and Amir to the warehouses of airlines who have shipments of wild animals coming in and going out.
"We get about 1000 shipments a month and almost 80% of our work involves dealing with live species," said Lara who is a wildlife inspector with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Imports and exports of tropical fish were what made up most of the consignment we were shown today, which the FWS had very kindly held for us before signing the papers and letting them go. Lara explained it was a tight schedule that these processes work on. The shipment included Angel fish, and another type that is used to clean the algae, a fish called the Medusa that sells at $50 a piece among several other colorful tropical swimmers, all packed in sturdy platic bags, and placed in boxes that are neatly sealed before being labelled.
The packaging process is an important issue and the FWS is required to check whether the animals are humanely packed with enough ventilation and space, and also whether they have been fed and are healthy. At any point in time, the office has a working staff of eight or nine people who deal with rescue calls, field jobs, desk work, paper work, and all their other duties on a rotational basis. In case of a shipment of venomous species, nation-wide policy requires them to have at least two officials conducting the inspection, which Lara says, they are trying to get pushed up to three.
Carlos Pages, also a wildlife inspector with the FWS, explained that the pet trade was a rapidly evolving business and that those in it, have the opportunity to make a lot of money when shipments of specimens that are priced at $20 a piece or higher are being imported or exported by the hundreds and thousands. There are strict regulations in place but you almost never know what you may find. People trying to sneak illegal stuff in shipments try to deter the FWS officials by having dangerous scorpions or venomous snakes placed on the top so that the inspectors would not want to dig deeper and investigate. This is why, says Lara, it is important to have more inspectors for venomous species shipments. The more people there are inspecting these consignments, the more careful the importer or exporter is going to have to be.
"We're trying to get a universal symbol for venomous and poisonous species. It will really help because now we just use the cross-bone and skull sign but we really are fighting to get that symbol so that everyone who might ever come in contact with those boxes will know that they should stay away," said Pages. They say the idea has been well received and work is in progress but will take some time because there are so many species involved.
All in all, the FWS folks in Miami have it pretty intense with the port being one of the busiest in the country and the climate being responsible for shipments being imported and exported throughout the year considering it never gets too cold or too hot for the trade to come to a halt. Thanks to some dedicated, warm and enthusiastic FWS officers, four people know a lot more about wildlife trading than they did at any point in time before today.