Crime

Smuggling: it’s for the birds

William Lowther July 9 1979
Crime

Smuggling: it’s for the birds

William Lowther July 9 1979

Smuggling: it’s for the birds

Crime

A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush, but a live hawk in a hair dryer can fetch $2,000. And that’s a fact of which customs officers along the Canadian-U.S. border are becoming increasingly aware. Organized bands of bird-smugglers are now believed to be operating between the two countries—dealing in rare and exotic creatures which are already on the fringe of extinction. That is why United States federal authorities are planning a sharp crackdown.

It seems quite extraordinary, but there are wealthy collectors and even public zoos in the U.S. prepared to pay high prices and ask no questions when they hear that a rare bird is on the market. “Some of the people involved are just appalling individuals,” says a spokesman for the National Audubon

Society. “They call themselves birdlovers but they are really nothing of the kind. Their actions take a tremendous toll on wildlife and they just don’t seem to care.”

Typically, the saga begins in the jungles of Southeast Asia or Latin America. A native, bribed by unscrupulous traders, will trap or snare a rare bird. Hawks and eagles are favorites, followed by gaudy parrots and songbirds of brilliant plumage.

The bird will be taken to a central collecting spot where the native is paid a pittance. Next, birds are flown in cages to Britain where the laws on importing exotic birds are lax. From Britain they are shipped to Canada because no restrictions apply on bird imports between Commonwealth members.

At that point, their beaks are taped, their wings are tied and they are stuffed into unlikely carriers—hair dryers are often used—to be smuggled into the U.S. and on to the thriving black market. It is strictly illegal to bring threatened species protected by the laws of other lands into the U.S. But it is here that the most money is available for the exotic and the scarce.

“We are really upset about this trade,” says Audubon Society spokesman Bob Boardman. “One of the grimmest facts is that our surveys show

that for every single bird that arrives here alive, another 20 to 25 have died along the route. Many, of course, are killed in the traps, others on the flight to Britain and still more die of fear or suffocation as the smugglers try to get them over the border into the States.”

In one case soon to come before a federal court in Syracuse, New York, it is alleged that six people, including the director of the Oklahoma City zoo and a bird dealer from Ontario, were involved in an international conspiracy to smuggle a Bolivian harpy eagle—an endangered species—into the U.S. Charges followed a two-year joint investigation by the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the commercial crime section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Apart from the eagle, an Australian bearded cockatoo and an assortment of cockatiels, parrots, finches and exotic waterfowl are allegedly involved.

The U.S. authorities say that over a three-year period the birds were smuggled over the border from Canada between Alexandria Bay and Champlain, New York. Because the case has yet to come to trial they refuse to discuss it further.

The six men named in the federal indictments in Syracuse are: Lawrence Curtis, the Oklahoma City zoo director; the lone Canadian, Alastair Macdonald of Vankleek Hill, Ont., a bird importer; Gordon Cooke of Leicester, England, an animal dealer; Walter Frey of Wister, Okla., a biology teacher; James Ross of Houston, a bird dealer; and Lee Sims of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an animal trainer.

Dr. William Smith, veterinarian medical officer with the agriculture department at Champlain, says that bird smuggling is most certainly on the increase as dealers and collectors try to circumvent extensive federal regulations governing the importation of wildlife.

Lawrence Curtis readily admits he paid $1,500 for the harpy eagle which, he says, he bought in “good faith” in 1974. Since then the eagle—a spectacular bird a yard long from beak to tail, with a wingspan twice that length—has had extensive publicity. It has been on a tour of the U.S. along with a documentary film on the life of harpy eagles and has appeared on television several times. “We have made no attempt to hide this bird,” says Curtis. “The charges are ridiculous, and when this whole thing is over you will see that we come out of it very well.”

If convicted, each of the men indicted faces fines of up to $10,000 and terms of up to five years in jail.

William Lowther