Pacific Southwest Region
California, Nevada and Klamath Basin

Canine Inspection Team Sniffing Out Smuggled Wildlife at Los Angeles Ports

Oct 24, 2013

October 24, 2013
Contacts:
Scott Flaherty, 916-978-6156
Jill Birchell, 916-414-6464

 

Canine Inspection Team Sniffing Out Smuggled Wildlife in Los Angeles

By Naomi Nishihara

Sometimes the best man for the job isn’t a man, a woman, or even a human being.  To enhance its capacity to combat illegal wildlife trafficking at ports in California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently hired on a young English Labrador retriever with a superior sense of smell. 

Lockett, a pure bread English lab, nearly two years old, has been trained to identify the scents of sea turtles, pythons, rhino horns and ivory—all animals or animal parts that are illegal to trade or whose trade is restricted.

According to Jill Birchell, special agent in charge of the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in the Pacific Southwest Region, Lockett was trained with three other canines in the USDA National Dog Detection Training Center in Georgia. Upon graduation, she was stationed with Service Wildlife Inspector Ray Hernandez in Los Angeles, to work primarily around Los Angeles ports of entry, including Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

“It’s one of the biggest ports in the country, and in terms of wildlife shipments LAX is the number one point of entry for live shipments to the United States,” said Birchell, adding that Service wildlife inspectors also screen shipments arriving by sea.  “The Los Angeles sea port is the busiest container port in the United States. It’s huge. ”

Lockett was trained through a three month course, and the first couple of weeks were spent matching dogs to Service wildlife inspectors.

“From that point on we worked with our dogs and tried to hone in on certain skills, like how to search and how to read the dogs—their mannerisms and changes in their behavior,” Hernandez said.

Now on duty, Hernandez and Lockett routinely travel from location to location to sniff out wildlife that is being smuggled into or out of the United States.

“We try to target those areas where we think we’re going to be most productive, and right now we’re finding that a lot of stuff is coming in via parcel facilities, like UPS, DHL, FedEx and the International Mail Facility,” Hernandez said.

“Commercial retailers, like Petco and Petsmart, will import animals, and they’re usually doing it with permits,” Hernandez said. “So they’re doing it legally, and we’re facilitating that. What Lockett and I are doing is looking for those items that are not declared to us— items that we would not have known about if we hadn’t gone out there with a trained dog. Catching smugglers is our focus.”

While some species can be legally imported, Lockett and Hernandez are looking for those that cannot be traded at all, like ivory, sea turtles and Rhino horns.

In July, President Obama issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to take certain steps to combat the illegal wildlife trafficking problem, which according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is valued at between $7.8 and $10 billion annually. The White House has also stated that the trade is growing, and profits are being used to finance international organized crime.

When illegal wildlife products are found, they are seized, forfeited or abandoned, and sent to the Service’s Wildlife repository in Colorado. From there, the products may be used for educational purposes, and occasionally scientific research.

“At one point we put together some suitcases, Suitcases for Survival, as part of an outreach effort to educate people on the kind of wildlife products that they should not be bringing into the United States,” Birchell said. “Many of these suitcases were put together with all these different products we’d seized and were shipped out to various ports to further our education efforts.”

Wildlife Inspectors also ensure shipments of live animals comply with humane transportation regulations. The importance of transporting animals legally and humanely was highlighted in August, when a Service Special Agent was called by the International Mail Facility about a package with something alive inside.

“The special agent investigated and found that someone was trying to smuggle tortoises and box turtles out of the country without proper permits or declarations,” Hernandez said. “The unfortunate thing was that this package was bouncing around the mail facility for two weeks and about a quarter of the animals died.”

When an illegal importation of live animals is discovered, the Service can either seize the shipment or refuse entry, causing the animal to be re-exported.

“Sometimes we might be further endangering [the animal’s] health if we don’t have a facility that’s willing and able to take care of it,” Birchell said. “In those cases, re-export may be the only option.” Whether the company is further penalized depends on other factors, including their past history.

To find these and avoid cases like tortoises and box turtles, Hernandez and Lockett try to inspect shipments at three to four facilities each day.

“That’s the beauty of her—of having a canine,” Hernandez said. “In the past it would take an inspector an entire day to clear a hundred packages. With Lockett we can clear a thousand packages in ten minutes. We are a pretty efficient, proactive team, looking for wildlife - whether products or live animals - that has not been declared.”

“A lot of the people we catch are retailers attempting to smuggle commercial shipments of illegal python shoes or alligator handbags,” Hernandez said.”

Lockett and Hernandez have been working together in Los Angeles for four months now, and the dollar value of illegal wildlife they’ve uncovered is roughly  $100,000.

“We try to work about five to six hours a day, though an hour of that is play,” Hernandez said. “I brush and groom her every day.  I’ll take her to the park or on walks. She’s not sniffing packages for hours, that’s just her work schedule. She’ll only be sniffing packages for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.”

When she’s off work, Lockett is housed in a local kennel.

“It’s a nice place—it has pools and waterfalls and she gets to interact with other dogs there,” Hernandez said. “It’s a pretty nice set up.”

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Naomi Nishihara is a student at University of California at Davis, Calif., where she is currently the Features Editor at the school’s newspaper, the “Aggie.” She worked as a public affairs intern the summer of 2013 at the Service’s Pacific Southwest Region External Affairs Office in Sacramento.