ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Wildlife inspectors at Alaska's largest airport have just about seen it all, from the woman who tried to hide a monkey under a large hat to the woman who had a bear gall bladder tucked in her bra.
''I've almost become numb,'' said Chris Andrews, one of Alaska's three U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspection officers assigned to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. ''When I see a monkey skull ashtray I say, 'Oh, another monkey skull ashtray.'''
The Anchorage airport, which is a hub for international flights to Russia and the Far East, is the largest cargo airport in the United States and ranks sixth nationwide for wildlife shipments.
In fiscal 2002 ending Sept. 31, the airport processed 6,648 wildlife shipments, up from 3,850 the previous fiscal year. About 12,000 cargo shipments were inspected in all.
The increase is partly due to the airport in May becoming a designated port for the import and export of wildlife, and wildlife parts and products. The designation decreased shipping fees and therefore increased shipments, Andrews said.
Andrews and his two colleagues are responsible for Alaska's 13 ports of entry. They typically check about 65 shipments each day and make about one seizure -- probably a small fraction of the illegal wildlife that is getting through.
Some of the airport contraband is on display in a glass case just outside Andrews' airport office. The case is filled with boxes and vials of Asian ''medicinals'' containing extract from endangered Sika and musk deer from China and Mongolia that purveyors say cures AIDS, cancer, menstrual problems, malnutrition after child birth and impotency.
The glass case also contains a woman's leopard coat from Taiwan, a crocodile head purse from Southeast Asia and a guitar from Mexico made from the shell of a sea turtle.
Andrews pulls a cardboard box from under his desk and holds up two bottles filled with a pale yellow liquid. The one with a cobra snake coiled in the bottom is from Vietnam. The other with two decomposing iguanas is from China. The ''wine'' is a popular novelty item with tourists.
''The tequila worm I can handle, but this is awful,'' said Sue Gadomski, a U.S. customs officer as she shrank from the bottles on Andrews' desk. Gadomski works closely with Andrews and his two colleagues in the Federal Inspection Services area of the airport.
Inspection officer Mike Kiehn, 47, pulls a stuffed cobra, poised as if ready to strike, off a top shelf. The item was taken from a tourist coming from Thailand.
''When the animal is killed, the venom becomes solidified but if you punctured yourself ... it could be lethal,'' he warned.
Inspectors have confiscated monkey skull ashtrays from Thailand, dried dog penises passed off as seal or tiger parts to increase male potency and boxes of sea coral from the Caribbean, Philippines and Indonesia.
Andrews said inspectors found two dead migratory birds wrapped in the bloody hide of a bear legally killed in Russia.
Another time, inspectors saw just the toes of a cat poking out of a man's carryon luggage. The man had two stuffed leopard cats, picked up during his visit to Vietnam, their mouths open in a nasty snarl with tongues painted blood red.
Inspectors have found bear claws, seal skins, carved walrus ivory, sperm whale teeth, eagle feathers and pool cues with inlaid ivory from African elephants.
''Most of the time it is ignorance,'' Andrews said. Travelers don't know the items may be illegal or at best require permits to possess.
But not always.
Inspectors found 10, 5-pound bags of Russian caviar worth an estimated $10,000 under the top layer of neatly folded clothes in a man's suitcase. The man was a Russian currier.
A New Yorker returning from Vietnam was spotted by an airport custodian ''eating snakes'' in the airport bathroom, Andrews said.
The man had become nervous about bringing his bottles of snake wine through customs so he was getting rid of the evidence as fast as he could, spilling much of it down his front, he said.
Inspectors also found a packet of liquid snake venom taped to the back of the man's drivers license. Once home, the man intended to refill the bottles with water and pour in the snake venom and let it ferment awhile before drinking it again.
''He said it helped with his back pain,'' Andrews said.
Penalties range from confiscation of the illegal item to a $100,000 fine and one year in jail.
Inspectors receive a five-week training course at a federal law enforcement training center in Glynco, Ga., to help them identify what is legal and what isn't. They take a two-hour course to help identify the five different types of ivory.
Inspectors must be familiar with numerous laws governing illegal imports, including the Endangered Special Act, prohibiting the import of endangered and most threatened species; the Lacey Act governing trade in wildlife; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a wildlife treaty signed by the United States and over 130 countries; the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prohibiting the imports of marina mammals, products and parts; the African Elephant Conservation Act prohibiting imports of ivory products and the Wild Bird Conservation Act, prohibiting the import of many exotic birds.
Inspectors have testing kits containing a dilute acid solution that reacts to calcium when a drop is placed on shell or coral. Many times the shell or coral is in jewelry and hard to detect.
Inspectors use an ultraviolet lamp to distinguish between ivory and plastic. Ivory will reflect the purple light. Plastic will absorb it.
Inspectors look for holes drilled in the sides of carryon luggage equipped with false bottoms. People will drug birds with alcohol to keep them quiet and put them in a paper towel holder and place them in the hidden compartment. The compartments are also a popular way of trying to smuggle live reptiles from Southeast Asia.
One of the airport custodians found a hummingbird stuffed in a pack of cigarettes discarded in a bathroom trash can.
''It ended up dying,'' Andrews said.
In 1998, an Anchorage woman returning from Korea got the attention of customs officers because she was carrying $9,900, just under the $10,000 reporting limit. She seemed nervous so two female inspectors conducted a strip search.
''Under one of her cups was a gold necklace. Under the other was a bear gall bladder wrapped in a plastic bag,'' Andrews said.
Inspectors believe the woman sold all but one of the gall bladders she brought to Korea and kept the one because she was worried about how much cash she would have to bring back to Alaska.
Andrews said there are bear farms in Russia where tubes are inserted into the gall bladders of live bears to get the extract, believed by some to help with high blood pressure, impotency and rheumatism.
Inspectors routinely confiscate bear gall bladder extract packed in small vials. It is either a chocolate-colored liquid or looks like crushed brown glass.
Andrews said in 1999 he confiscated three different types of coral and about 50 sea fans from an American diver visiting the British Virgin Islands who had ripped them from the ocean floor.
''I was thoroughly disgusted,'' Andrews said.
The coral and fans were donated to the biology department at an Anchorage high school.
Kiehn said one of his favorite seizures was in 1995 when a woman traveling from Korea to the Lower 48 passed through customs wearing a very large hat.
''The hat kind of went up and down and we looked,'' Kiehn said.
The woman had a puchin monkey under her hat.
The monkey found a home at a South California zoo.
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