Where the Wild Things Are No More

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Where the Wild Things Are No More

By Thomas Curwen on LATimes.com
June 2009

The National Wildlife Property Repository is the resting place for 1.5 million victims of illegal trade. They sit on shelves or in boxes as bracelets, shoes, pelts and more.

"Wildlife dies without a sound....We're the only guys who can give them a voice."


The pelts and heads of large cats sit on large industrial shelves at the repository.
Photo by Nathan W. Armes/Los Angeles Times

At the National Wildlife Property Repository, only the imagination runs wild. Everything else is dead and lies on the crowded shelves of this warehouse outside Denver.

There's a Hartmann's mountain zebra, its hide a rifle case -- the souvenir of a safari to southern Africa.

There are the alligators whose skins adorn eight pairs of $2,000 Air Force 1s, the scheme of a hip-hop-inspired importer.

There are the black bears whose gallbladder bile was extracted and crystallized, a futile cure for hangovers and hemorrhoids.

Some deaths here, however, defy imagining -- like that of the orangutan, whose skull, carved with decorative swirls and lightning bolts, is all that remains; or the caimans, standing on hind legs and holding silver trays like butlers; or the cheetah, with the frozen snarl and teardrop eyes.

Domestic and international laws protect roughly 5,000 animals against exploitation and extinction, and the National Wildlife Property Repository is the endpoint for all that is caught and confiscated by federal agencies in this country.

Held for educational purposes, future undercover operations and possible use by the Smithsonian or other museums, the items in this building represent, in the words of one agent, nothing less than "the evil in mankind."

The federal government may give the repository a fancy name, but it is really a mausoleum, a tomb for nearly 1.5 million mammals, insects, reptiles, birds and assorted sea life, testimony to one of the largest illegal, if not creepiest, trades in the world -- third behind drugs and guns -- worth an estimated $20 billion annually.

Skinned, mounted, cut up and/or processed, the items arrive from U.S. Fish and Wildlife field offices around the country. Specialist Doni Sprague's job is to sort and document the pieces before wheeling them through the double doors and into a dusty oblivion.

On a recent day she was processing a shipment of antiques from Detroit: opera glasses, snuff boxes, ink wells, each tricked out with elephant ivory or sea turtle shell.

The seizure was nothing scandalous. An agent dropped in on an antiques store in the upscale suburb of Birmingham, Mich. He said he was a buyer, and he kept returning for the next few months until he learned that these particular items -- objets de vitrine as they're known in the antiques trade -- had been smuggled from England.

In another age and era, they represented the privilege of empire. Today, they are a crime against the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act. In a plea bargain, the owner of the store agreed to pay a $15,000 fine and $10,000 to the Detroit Zoological Society's endangered species program.

Sprague steps between a computer and the counter, bar-coding each item. The antiques gleam under the overhead lights, pictures of a diminished elegance.

The illegal wildlife trade is colored by many shades of gray. Some violations are blatant: trafficking walrus tusks or polar bear skins. Others, such as selling these antiques, seem strangely innocent and are often prosecuted largely for the purpose of discouraging a potential market.

Laws and regulations governing the trade cover the world like a net, tangled and knotted in an attempt to unite countries and cultures in one common mission. That mission -- to conserve ecosystems and save endangered and threatened species -- came of age in this country during the Nixon administration after nearly 200 years of vanishings.

Birds that had once blanketed the sky, seals that had once crowded the Caribbean and sea turtles once so plentiful that a man could capture 100 in a single day off Cape Hatteras were gone or nearly gone, and Congress decided to act. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 put the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of protecting various species. Two years later the national agenda took an international turn when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was ratified.

From the start, the Fish and Wildlife Service was overwhelmed by the task. The initial budget was $11 million, and no one could have imagined a need for the repository.

Terry Grosz, at the time the endangered species desk officer for the Division of Law Enforcement, remembers being run ragged during those early days. Inadequate staffing and critics who wanted the Endangered Species Act declared unconstitutional added to the burden.

The breaking point for Grosz occurred when 11,000 pounds of green sea turtle meat was intercepted in New York City. The importer said it belonged to the one turtle species that was not endangered. Grosz thought otherwise but had no way of proving it.

The shipment was allowed into the country, a bitter loss that eventually led to the creation of a forensic laboratory in Ashland, Ore., that could provide DNA tests -- and positive identification -- of seized items. The lab opened in 1989 and is the only one of its kind in the world.

As the lab grew crowded with the forfeitures and confiscations from each successful prosecution, Washington asked Grosz, promoted by then to assistant regional director of law enforcement for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, to start looking for a warehouse.

'Greed and status," says Grosz, when asked to explain why the trade and market for animal products exist. They're the reasons these items symbolize for him such evil.

The repository was established in 1995 on the site of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an Army facility once used for manufacturing chemical weapons. Three years earlier, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to manage the 17,000-acre site as a wildlife refuge.

There was a time -- 1984, to be exact, in testimony to Congress -- when Grosz argued that the illegal trade could be stopped. Nowadays he isn't so sure.

"Given the poverty and the corruption that exist in other parts of the world, there will always be pressure to resort to the illegal wildlife trade," he says. "People have to eat. When people are hungry, this is what they do."

Located on a knoll surrounded by rolling hills of newly restored grasslands, the wildlife repository shares space with the National Eagle Repository, which distributes portions of deceased bald and golden eagles, mostly feathers, to Native Americans.

Building No. 128 is made of cinder blocks and metal siding. The warehouse is nearly as long as a football field and half the width. The floor plan is simple: a walk-in freezer, rows of industrial shelving and a storage system that offers security and climate control for valuable and perishable items. The antiques from Detroit will find a place in the locked cabinet opposite the elaborately carved elephant tusks.

The repository has something of a hallowed reputation among Fish and Wildlife agents. Some have visited. Others know it only by reputation. All view it as essential and invaluable.

Nationwide there are 199 Fish and Wildlife special agents, responsible for investigating illegal trade and the deaths of protected species, and 115 wildlife inspectors, who focus on import and export regulations. (In Southern California, there are six agents and 13 inspectors.)

Given these numbers, it's not surprising that most agents estimate that only one-tenth of 1% of the illegal wildlife brought into the country is intercepted.

'Everything is vulnerable," said Bernadette Atencio, supervisor of the repository, when asked to look beyond particular laws and explain the meaning of this place.

Civilian visitors most often ask whether everything here is real. Stripped from the context of their lives, instincts and behaviors defined by environment, these animals are caricatures, soulless representations of their former selves.

Spend time inside this ark and you confront one of mankind's deepest atavistic streaks, an instinct as old as fire. Here on shelves stuffed with pelts, piled with shoe boxes or crammed with bitter smelling medicines, is proof of an unstoppable obsession with capturing and owning the wild.

There are pills and plasters for potency, coats and belts for allure, and novelty items for some social cachet.

Each is a totem, an evolutionary holdover, from a time when we sought dominion over the world and magic from its creatures.

But what once was a primitive painting on the wall in a cave is now a sophisticated and cruel industry that is slowly changing life on this planet. Here in a mere box or a plastic bag, you will find a flock of birds, a school of fish, a herd of mammals.

In single cases, agents have confiscated 26,000 sea horses, 428 queen conch shells, 985 Saiga antelope horns, 272 bull shark jaws, 88 tree snail shells, 40 leopard skins, 100 monocled cobra snake vertebra bracelets, 175 mounted cobras, 15 urns made from chambered nautiluses.

Scientists in the last few years have begun floating estimates of how many animal and plant species will be heading toward extinction by 2050. Some say between 15% and 37%, a quantity high enough for this period of time to be called the Sixth Extinction since life emerged on Earth.

Naturalist E.O. Wilson has suggested that when the current epoch -- the Age of Mammals, or Cenozoic -- is over, the new era should be called the Eremozoic, its Greek prefix denoting loneliness.

Although global warming and pollution are playing a role in this trend, Grosz knows firsthand the heavy toll that the wildlife trade has taken.

Now retired and writing books about his experiences with the agency, he often resorts to metaphors of war (". . . there will not be a lot of animals out there if we're not able to hold the line . . .") and a surprising degree of tenderness when describing the losses.

"Wildlife dies without a sound," he says. "We're the only guys who can give them a voice."

Outside of the repository, a robin huddles in a small nest. A bull snake winds across a road. Mallards sleep on an empty boardwalk. Cormorants take fight, and Canada geese poke among the grass near the shallows.

The Age of Loneliness seems to have taken hold. Wind gusts across the plains, and in the distance, the skyline of Denver is dwarfed by the snow-capped Rockies.

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