ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — Wildlife inspectors at Alaska's largest airport have seen it all, from the traveler who tried to hide a monkey under her big hat to the woman who had a bear gall bladder stuffed 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, a hub for flights to Russia and the Far East, is the biggest cargo airport in the United States and ranks sixth nationwide for wildlife shipments, processing 6,648 of them in the last fiscal year.
Andrews and his two colleagues typically check about 65 shipments each day and make about one seizure -- probably a small fraction of the illegal wildlife that is getting through. Many of the contraband items are folk remedies and other exotica from Asia.
The items seized are illegal outright or require permits to possess. Andrews said most travelers did not realize they were breaking the law, but plenty of other violators know it.
Penalties range from confiscation of the illegal item to a $100,000 fine and a year in jail.
Some of the airport contraband is on display in a glass case outside Andrews' office. Among the curiosities: 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.
Inspection officer Mike Kiehn 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," Kiehn said.
Inspectors also have confiscated monkey-skull ashtrays from Thailand, dried dog penises, boxes of sea coral, pool cues with inlaid ivory from African elephants, and vials of bear gall bladder extract, which is believed by some to relieve high blood pressure, impotence and rheumatism.
Wildlife inspectors must be familiar with numerous laws and treaties protecting threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna. They receive a five-week training course at a federal installation in Glynco, Ga., to help them identify what is legal and what isn't. They take a two-hour course just to help identify the five types of ivory.
Inspectors also look for false compartments and holes drilled in carry-on luggage. People have been known to drug birds with alcohol to keep them quiet and place them in the hidden compartments. The compartments are also a popular way of smuggling live reptiles from Southeast Asia.
An airport custodian once found a hummingbird stuffed in a pack of cigarettes.
Kiehn said one of his favorite seizures was in 1995, when a woman traveling from Korea passed through customs wearing a very large hat.
"The hat kind of went up and down and we looked," Kiehn said.
There was a monkey underneath it. The animal found a home at a Southern California zoo.