It's a Jungle Out There : Wildlife Smuggling Is Booming, Nowhere More Tham in the U.S., Where the Good Guys are Undermanned and Overwhelmed

He is a contributing editor to this magazine. His last article was on Johnnie L. Cochran Jr

Sunday. 9 a.m. Sixty-five international shipments of 2,428 boxes containing 878,394 tropical fish swimming in sealed sandwich bags await inspection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Los Angeles International Airport.

Smuggling of dangerous or endangered species is the government's concern. In a perfect world, every box should be cut open, each bag checked. But, as usual, there is just one inspector. This Sunday, it is Mike Osborn, supervisor for Southern California. And, as always, the bagged fish have consumed much of their oxygen during the flights from Asia and SouthAmerica. They need more, soon. Osborn's search for contraband must be swift and cursory.

As often happens, Osborn has a tip from an informant. "I was told that a certain importer is smuggling in endangered arawanas," Osborn mumbles with needle-in-haystack optimism.

Arawanas, also known as golden dragons, look like skinny catfish with iridescent scales of green, gold, silver or red. They are revered by many Asians as bearers of good luck. Osborn explains that certain endangered arawanas from Southeast Asia are illegal to import. But for those who take the risk, smuggled arawanas can bring up to $10,000 each in the United States to adorn private collections, corporate offices and restaurants.

Osborn spots the suspected smuggler's van outside the Cathay Airlines cargo office. He shakes his head with disdain.

"That's the guy, Norm Golub, a real--well, you decide."

The office is crowded with importers anxious for Osborn to clear their shipments. As we approach, a man of considerable girth, with basset hound jowls and gold gleaming from neck, wrists and fingers, throws up his hands in slapstick surrender. "Raid!" he screeches. "It's the feds! I'm guilty! Take me to jail, Officer Osborn!"

It's Norm Golub, 64, an exotic animal dealer in Los Angeles since 1956. Even Osborn allows that Golub is an accomplished entrepreneur.

Golub agrees, at length: "I've made big scores . . . made a fortune in the1980s buying 10,000 to 15,000 baby caymans [similar to crocodiles] at a time from Colombia for peanuts and selling them for $10 each in Taiwan. Somebody--honest, it wasn't me--started a rumor that cayman meat was an aphrodisiac, and the skins were valuable [caymans are now regulated]."Golub chuckles to himself, then frowns. "Naturally, the feds assumed wrongly again that I was the biggest smuggler in America."

Golub was implicated briefly in 1987 in a federal investigation of reptile smuggling. His home was searched and seven boxes of records were seized by agents. He was questioned by a federal prosecutor and released. Several other importers and a federal wildlife inspector pleaded guilty. Since then, Golub has been caught with illegal fish, but they were not arawanas.

Osborn heads for Golub's shipment of 40 boxes stacked on a pallet. Golub scurries behind, heckling. "Mike, any time you want to be a hero I'll bring in something illegal and you can catch me." Golub giggles.

Osborn, 40, is tall and lean with the weary sternness of a headmaster trying to discipline rich brats. With the ease of a gunfighter, he draws a five-inch folding knife of honed German steel from a worn leather sheath and slices open a box marked "Live Fish. Hong Kong." He checks the plastic bags, packed in crumpled newspaper, reseals the box and opens another.

Golub pretends to shield a stack of boxes with his body. His voice and face sadden. "Gee, Mike, you look tired." He brightens. "Why don't I inspect these boxes and you inspect those boxes?" Osborn's face is blank.

A competitor of Golub hoots: "Where's the illegal fish, Normy? You're overdue!"

Osborn manages to fight a grin, but not the cattiness in his voice. "Why don't any of the other importers like you, Norm? Why is that?"

Golub is unruffled, blase. "Oh, because I have a big mouth, and they're jealous because my checks don't bounce and theirs do."

Osborn searches Golub's last box. "Nothing," he tells me under his breath. "Bad tip. Most of them are. Importers are always back-stabbing, trying to get at each other."

Golub whines: "Can I go, Mike?"

Osborn grunts: "Please do."

Golub waves. "Bye, suckers. Merry Christmas."

Later, as we talk at his home, which overlooks a fish-shaped swimming pool, Golub brags: "I could bring in something illegal every week if I wanted. The feds are so overwhelmed, they're useless . . . a joke."

Beneath Golub's crust of hyperbole lies a core of truth. Nationwide, 74 federal wildlife inspectors are spread among more than 300 ports of entry.

"A majority of wildlife shipments receive no physical inspection," a 22-month General Accounting Office study revealed in December of 1994. Forty-four of 63 inspectors surveyed in the GAO review "believed that an illegal shipment would be able to escape detection over 50% of the time." Even their supervisors agreed that the inspection program "is detecting verylittle illegal wildlife trade."

Once inside the United States, smuggled plants and animals often are sold with impunity because many species now illegal to import can be purchased legally if bred here in captivity. Often, both buyers and sellers either don't know or don't ask the origin. Sales hinge on rarity--not pedigree. Much of the trafficking also involves skins, hides, horns, ivory and medicinal potions or aphrodisiacs made from animal parts, where the buyer may know the product is illegal but doesn't care. The GAO reported "...that global wildlife trade... was valued at a minimum of $5 billion to $8 billion [in 1992] and that as much as $2 billion of this trade may have been illegal."

Smuggling of wildlife flourishes because--as with narcotics--an insatiable demand is only exceeded by staggering profit. The undisputed major consumer of both is the United States. A single gram of curative or virility potion from--the buyer hopes--a tiger, rhino or wild bear costs more than two grams of cocaine. The penalties, though, are quite different. Smuggle a $300 ounce of cocaine, sell it for $2,000 and chance 10 years in prison. Smuggle a $300 live cockatoo, or a $300 bear gallbladder, sell them each for $2,000 and risk a severe tongue-lashing. One wildlife smuggler, the GAO reported, was caught 14 times over five years but "received no penalties or fines."

The smuggler's good fortune dramatizes a growing political and public mood swing away from two decades of zealous protection for threatened and endangered creatures that began with the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Just last month, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced legislation drafted by a GOP task force to soften the bitterly contested law. It protects more than 1,400 domestic and foreign species, with another 3,700 candidates waiting to qualify. Passage of the 1973 act was part of a worldwide effort. That same year, 88 countries formed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They signed an agreement to prohibit and police the import or export of endangered, threatened and protected plants and animals. They now number 120 countries with control over 3,200 animals and nearly 40,000 plants. In practice, however, member nations such as Thailand, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong have been sanctioned under the agreement as among the worst offenders.

The stakes for America transcend saving earth's flora and fauna from the greedy. Far greater is the peril of foreign pestilence and disease, such as the Asian gypsy moth and the ebola virus, encephalitis, rabies, anthrax, Newcastle and hoof-and-mouth disease, to name a few. Potential carriers of the above are considerable. Each month, conservatively, an estimated 11 million exotic creatures and fish, 4 million plants and 300,000 international travelers enter the United States through Los Angeles alone. In theory, they are screened or inspected by a network of federal agents from wildlife, customs, immigration, agricultureand public health. But not in reality.

*

Sunday. 6 p.m. Inspector Osborn has been wrestling boxes and hoisting bags of water and fish for nine hours, with no surprises. Lunch was vending machine corn chips and a soda. He squints at the last shipment, studies the invoice, opens, inspects and reseals two boxes. He stands, grimaces and massages his shoulder. "My rotator cuff," he murmurs. "From lifting bags of water day after day."

He glances at his watch. His eyes flick to the pallet of unopened boxes. His voice is tired. "Thousands of Siamese fighting fish [which are legal] are supposed to be in these boxes. Could be anything hidden in them. Can't check but a few. A tip or my gut is what it comes down to."

He nods to the importer. "Load 'em."

Osborn supervises 12 inspectors who cover an area stretching from Los Angeles 300 miles south along the Arizona-Mexico border. Their territory includes:

The ocean ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's two largest. Combined, they rank fourth in the world.

San Ysidro on the Mexican border near San Diego, the United States' largest land border port.

Los Angeles International Airport, America's busiest airport for live animals and second-busiest for animal products.

"We got a mess," Osborn says with the nonchalance that constant crisis brings. "Not enough people for LAX, let alone ocean ports and smaller border crossings."

As for staff turnover, "It's hard to keep people," Osborn says. Inspectors start at $20,000 a year. "Add another $10,000 to $12,000 for overtime."

Golub and other importers have boasted that they can smuggle with abandon through American airports because understaffing forces inspectors, as Golub put it: "To just sit in their office and rubber-stamp paperwork. Even if they did inspect, they wouldn't know an endangered arawana or arapaima [a protected South American fish] if it bit them on the nose."

Osborn offers a so-what-else-is-new shrug. "Smugglers call it 'port shopping,' " he says. "They keep intelligence files--I've seen them myself--on the ports, inspectors--their strengths and weaknesses. They'll call somebody, 'Hey, who's working tonight?' and juggle their shipments at the last minute. You can bet they know Miami is severely understaffed right now."

Easier still is smuggling animals into the United States via Canada--a problem well publicized by Canadian media. Osborn shrugs, again. "Oh, there's some type of inspection in Canada, but they can't do hardly anything. No resources." His voice turns anxious. "Listen, I would really appreciate if you would mention in your story--give credit to the otherservices--customs, USDA, public health. Without their help. . . ."

Spread thinnest is the U.S. Public Health Service, which has 70 inspectors at quarantine stations worldwide. "I've got five inspectors, including myself, to cover Southern California, the Mexican border, Las Vegas, Denver and parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas," says Michael J. Marty, officer in charge of the Los Angeles Quarantine Station at LAX.

Marty says his airport staff screen international passengers who appear sick or complain of illness, and monitor importation of monkeys, reptiles an other potential animal disease carriers.

Of chief concern are monkeys--carriers of virulent viruses such as the ebola "and others not yet isolated or named" that can infect humans. This summer, 244 people were killed by an ebola outbreak in Zaire.

Monkeys have been banned in 1976 from entering the United States commercially or as pets Now they can only enter under special permit for research or exhibition, such as in animal acts. Surveillance of monkey importers was intensified following a 1989 outbreak of ebola virus among quarantined monkeys in Virginia.

Yet smuggling of monkeys persists.

"We caught an airline passenger with 18 baby monkeys packed in six little sacks--like marble bags," Marty recalls. "'He was feeding them condensed milk with a baby bottle. Another smuggler's hat started moving. He had two monkeys under it. One passenger had a gibbon wrapped around his chest under his shirt. Their arms are over two feet long."

Marty stares at the teeming Bradley International Terminal below his second-floor office. "LAX is almost a full-time job," Marty sighs. "Who knows what's being smuggled in on ships. We don't have the people to check the ocean ports."

He talks about imported reptiles--often carriers of salmonella, which causes violent diarrhea and vomiting. Marty recalls the long popularity among children of imported matchbook-size baby turtles. "Kids would put everything--turtles, fingers, dirty water--in their mouth." Now pet stores are banned from importing turtles under four inches, the larger turtles being less appealing. But, Marty says, there's a loophole. "You can bring in six turtles under four inches for 'personal' use. A hundred people, that's 600 turtles."

Another crack in the law, Marty says, is a lack of restrictions on pet iguanas, also salmonella carriers. "We get 10,000 iguanas a month coming into Los Angeles alone." "In our spare time," he says with a flicker of sarcasm, "we spot check roughly 150 containers with 50,000 used tires coming into L.A. from Asia each month for recapping and sale. Asian mosquitoes carry encephalitis [sleeping sickness] and lay their eggs inside wet, dirty tires. Fifty to 90% of the tires we spot check are rejected for being wet and dirty."

An outbreak of encephalitis in 1984 in east Texas was traced to foreign mosquitoes, Marty says. The outbreak eventually spread to 17 states. "All we can do is try and train other agencies what to watch for. We're a paper tiger."

Marty's boss, Charles McCance, quarantine director for the National Center for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, says: "Like the rest of government, we're having to downsize. We're at a critical mass right now. If we take any more hits over the next two years, we're going to lose some things we're doing. It's tough out there."

*

Ike's nose and Sam Billison's ears will be the front line of defense in Los Angeles this morning against plant disease, infestations and pestilence entering the United States in packages mailed from foreign soil. Ike is an Australian cattle dog. Billison is a federal inspector. They work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, division of plant protection and quarantine. They are assigned to the U.S. Post Office substation that processes foreign mail arriving at Los Angeles International Airport. Ike sniffs and scrambles over registered parcels heaped on a moving conveyor belt. The dog slows and roots out a package of dried citrus peel and herbal medicine from Asia (even a dried citrus peel can carry diseases such as citrus canker). The package, though, has no address, and the peel was sticking out. "That's a training package," confesses Ike's handler, Dave Morrison. "We sort of rigged it in case Ike didn't find nothing."

As Ike chews his tennis ball reward, inspector Billison steps to the conveyor belt. "I'm sort of a backup system," Billison explains. He snatches a package, turns it, hefts it, shakes it next to his ear, slowly at first, then harder, slower, and drops it into a suspicious package cart.

"What are you listening for?" I ask. Billison purses his lips. "Food sounds. Rattling. Things moving. Kind of hard to describe. You kind of get the feel for it from experience [this is Billison's fourth year]."

Within minutes, Billison seizes 10 packages to open with a box cutter. USDA supervisors and postal workers watch.

The first package contains tea and herbal laxatives from Taiwan. Billison mutters: "Didn't sound like tea or . . . ." He reseals the package with practiced speed and precision.

"How much you charge to wrap Christmas presents?" someone snickers. "Plenty!" Billison snaps.

The next five suspicious packages--all from the Middle East--contain shoes. Billison reddens. "Meat and shoes kind of rattle the same," he mumbles.

He opens a sixth package from the Middle East.

"Probably socks," someone whispers. Nope. Scarves. Next to Billison is a machine that looks like it X-rays things, like packages.

Gingerly, I ask: "What's that machine for?"

Billison turns grim. "That's an X-ray machine to X-ray these here packages so I don't have to cut every single one open, pull the stuff out and repack them and tape each one back up again. But we can't use it 'cause it don't work. It's busted. Been broken for a couple days. Waiting for some guy to come in with a part--that's what they keep telling us, anyway."

His supervisor, Kwong Y. Tso, agrees the broken X-ray machine "slows things down quite a lot," given that roughly 600,000 packages pass through the substation a year. He suggests that I call Washington to ask about the repair delay. "We try to buy new X-ray machines--we also need 300 to 400 more personnel--and we need [them] desperately, but we just can't do it," responds Paul Eggert, assistant to the USDA's deputy administrator of plant protection and quarantine. "It's not that we don't have the money, and this may sound crazy to you, but we have the money--about $70 million--sitting in a federal bank account, but we aren't given access to it."

Eggert explains: "Congress stopped appropriating taxpayer money for us in 1990. Since then, our funding comes from user fees paid by importers, exporters, passengers, agriculture and so on. But the catch is Congress still decides each year what money we get, and it runs 15% to 20% less than we collect."

"Understaffed?" snaps James S. Eddy, USDA officer in charge of 130 inspectors covering the air and sea ports of greater Los Angeles. "We're like a bald man trying to beat a nest of yellow jackets off his head. We get 4 to 5 million live plants through here a month with a 2% inspection rate." His eyes narrow skeptically. "They tell us a 2% inspection gives us a 95% accuracy." He mutters: "I don't understand how they figure it, but that's what they claim."

Eddy's inspectors make about 5,000 "interceptions" a year in the search for threats, such as birds carrying the Newcastle virus, which ravaged the California poultry industry in the 1970s, and the gypsy moth, which has defoliated millions of acres of hardwoods in the Northeast. Declared plant shipments are checked at a quarantine station near Los Angeles International Airport. This day, USDA supervisor Tso seizes about 4,000 decorative palms and tropical cane from Central America. "They were infested with a deadly plant fungus that could wipe out a whole nursery. We were suspicious because one of these importers had an illegal shipment recently."

In the past, federal agents often have relied on help from the Special Operations undercover unit of the California Department of Fish and Game. Not anymore.

*

Lt. Eddie Watkins of the state Fish and Game Department gazes at the empty desks in the Sacramento headquarters of his undercover unit. He plays back the new answering machine message he recorded in June: "Our office is temporarily closed for overtime reduction. . . ."

Watkins, 59, tall with broad shoulders, a generous paunch, thinning hair and tired blue eyes, slumps into a chair. He exhales, sags. Lines deepen on a creased, good ol' boy undercover cop face.

"Temporarily closed?" he mimics cynically. "Cut off at the knees is more like it. Certain politicians, powerful forces, say we're a beast, so let's kill the beast. I'm not bad-mouthing them. It's just frustration."

Watkins retired from the LAPD in 1984 and joined the state agency in 1985. He took over fish and game undercover operations in 1989 with a staff of 14. The following year, Watkins' staff was cut to zero. Since then, he has managed to borrow a handful of field wardens for undercover work on a two-year rotation. Their tours end this fall but, Watkins says, "we were told [in June] to go home for three months to burn up overtime."

Watkins riffles a six-inch stack of papers. "I've got hundreds of cases . . . wide-scale poaching, smuggling. You'd like to work, but you can't."

Watkins' special concern is North American bears and the illegal global trafficking in their skulls, bones, organs, hides, paws, claws and flesh.

For 2,000 years, the bear has been a cornerstone of traditional Asian medicine for preventing and healing disease, and the cultural embodiment of strength, prowess and health. A bowl of bear paw soup can cost $450 in Seoul or more than $1,000 in Taiwan.

The mystique is supported in part by modern research. Bears have a chemical, ursodeoxycholic acid, in the bile of their gallbladders that is sold commercially in synthetic form and is prescribed by doctors in the United States and abroad to dissolve gallstones and treat liver ailments and maladies from high fever to hemorrhoids.

But many Asians are convinced only real bear bile works, and will pay dearly. A bear gallbladder, depending on freshness or origin, can cost from $2,000 to $10,000 in Asia, according to the September, 1994, Inter national Symposium on the Trade of Bear Parts for Medicinal Use. Bear bile is in such demand, the symposium found, that hundreds of government-sanctioned "bear farms" have sprung up across China. An estimated 10,000 caged, chained bears, their bodies fitted with catheters or spigots, are milked for bile weekly.

Last month, four Chinese nationals were indicted on charges of attempting to smuggle through LAX more than 11 pounds of bear gallbladder bile, valued at $2 million, that prosecutors believe came from one of the defendant's bear farms in China. Also seized were musk deer testicles, whole bear gallbladders, rhino horn pills and tiger bone plasters.

Deemed most potent is bile from wild bears in Asia, the symposium reported. Some species have been hunted to near extinction in China and Korea. North American black bears fill the void. Federal surveys estimate the black bear population at about 600,000 and stable. But bear poaching rises steadily.

"I've been involved in over 100 arrests for bear trafficking," Watkins says. He opens a cooler stuffed with 150 confiscated dried bear gallbladders. "These are worth $400,000 in Korea."

He holds up a sack of dried gallbladders from pigs and cows. "These were being sold as bear 'galls.' Much of so-called bear bile products are bunk. Only sophisticated tests can tell the difference."

A sure way is to kill the bear yourself. Last year, William Jintaek Lee of Los Angeles was convicted of recruiting and charging foreign hunters $1,800 or more to illegally shoot bears in Northern California. Lee was fined $8,000 and forbidden to hunt for three years. Ten others received $32,000 in fines and/or 90-day jail terms.

The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert M. Brodney of the county's environmental crimes division, calls Los Angeles "the hub for animal trafficking. The Southern California market is huge, and L.A. is a crossroad between Asia and the Americas."

International smuggling cases in Southern California are prosecuted by U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella in Los Angeles. "One reason we go after smuggling and environmental cases is because we get more bang for the buck," she says. "It's a small world and a few prosecutions gets the message out."

"The public has little concept of the enormity, the impact of this global illegal market on rare and endangered species," says Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan J. Hochman. Trafficking laws need toughening, Hochman says, "but, if anything, Congress is in the process of weakening the laws by trying to weaken the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That act incorporates provisions of the [international] treaty that affects our wildlife smuggling laws. The ramifications are of no small concern to this office."

Hochman has prosecuted 12 major smuggling cases since 1990. A sampling of local federal cases since April:

Two California men, a former president of the Bay Area Carnivorous Plant Society and an Alameda County deputy district attorney, pleaded guilty in Los Angeles to smuggling 200 endangered flesh-eating plants from Indonesia. Their sentence includes a $10,000 fine each, one year of probation, 200 hours of community service and a letter of remorse.

An Indonesian man was sentenced to five months in jail for smuggling 1,346 endangered lady's-slipper orchids.

A Salvadoran woman was sentenced to six months for smuggling 3,780 eggs of the olive Ridley sea turtle, now threatened with extinction. The eggs sell for $1 to $5 each as an aphrodisiac. An airline passenger from Asia awaits trial after 18 Asian bear gallbladders were found taped to his body.

A former Playboy mansion animal keeper awaits sentencing for her role in an Australian cockatoo egg smuggling ring. The ring has been charged with stealing eggs from nests, smuggling them into the United States, hatching them in incubators and selling the birds for $1,500 to $12,500.

The biggest local conviction this year involved the smuggling of $800,000 to $1 million in potions and parts of endangered animals from Russia and Asia.

Chang Hao An of China was caught at LAX with a Siberian tiger skin and skeleton (valued at $26,000), two bear gallbladders and 200 vials of bear bile ($764,000), and 360 rhino hornpills ($50 each). Court documents declare: "These products are literally worth their weight in gold as Chinese medicinal products [bear bile]" or "as aphrodisiacs . . . to increase the sexual virility of males [tiger bones, rhino horns]. His crime is one that has been condemned by over 100 countries."

He was given the maximum sentence of 21 months in federal prison.

"Slowly but surely," prosecutor Hochman says, "animal traffickers are being treated as real criminals. It has been a rude awakening."

*

Moments before his sentencing Nov. 7, 1994, Stephen Earl Cook's gravelly growl of a voice fills the Los Angeles courtroom with taunts and jeers directed at U.S. District Judge Manuel Real and prosecutor Hochman. Cook cackles derisively at the notion that Real would dare imprison him simply for smuggling 614 endangered red-kneed tarantulas from northwestern Mexico for sale as pets. He scoffs at expert testimony that he decimated the local spider population. He ridicules expert opinion that venom of the red-kneed tarantula may provide a link to curing Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Cook accuses Real of "running me up the river on a bunch of bum raps." He calls Hochman "a man who forges paperwork and coerces witnesses to lie."

Real's patience evaporates: "This is not a game. . . . Be quiet, Mr.Cook . . . or you're going to get gagged." Cook retorts: "Or you're going to gag me? The Honorable Judge Real would tape my mouth shut and handcuff me to a chair?"

Real's reply is crisp: "You don't think I'll do it?"

Two marshals manacle Cook's hands behind his back. They press a towel to his mouth. Cook twists in muffled. The towel is removed but not the handcuffs. Cook remains defiant but subdued.

Real concludes before imposing punishment: "Defendant had repeatedly violated wildlife laws for at least 15 years and had, in this case, destroyed a local population of an endangered species and possibly eliminated a link in the cure to harmful diseases."

Real fines Cook $7,500 and sentences him to the maximum 105 months in prison.

Cook's lack of prudence and judicial respect dangles from a gossamer of justifiable illusion. For 20 years, he admits and public records confirm, Cook has bent or broken animal trafficking laws brazenly with scant punishment.

Eight months later I visit Cook in the maximum security U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc. Cook, 47, is short and burly with thick, stubby arms and hands. A waist bulging from prison food tests his buttons. His eyes glower behind tinted glasses. For 90 minutes, his anger veiled by brittle bursts of laughter, Cook recounts his exploits, rails at his accusers and exudes confidence his sentence will be reversed on appeal (Cook also faces state rattlesnake trafficking charges in Arizona).

"I didn't grow up in the ghetto [but] around Palos Verdes. My dad was vice president of Douglas aircraft. Since I was 10 I've been shaggin' in critters and sellin' 'em. Reptiles. I love 'em. I've never been without one."

His eyes and voice drift. "I'm the real deal. I was a pioneer [in the 1970s]. I brought back things from South America nobody else could . . . went to places in Mexico where no white men go."

CooK leans forward. "See, I don't give a s - - - about the money. For me, it's the fame. Everybody knows you're the best there is. That's what I always enjoyed."

His voice rises. "I tell people, 'I can get you anything you want.' People started asking for tarantulas. I could sell the hell out of them."

Tarantulas are big business. Pet stores nationwide sell them by the thousands each year for up to $200 each. Experts attest they are docile and live more than 30 years.

Cook hired Mexican villagers in 1993 to collect hundreds of endangered tarantulas for $3 each, according to documents and investigators. He then smuggled them in Dixie cups packed in suitcases. Cook says competing spider dealers conspired with federal wildlife agents to frame him. He leans back and laughs. "They've been trying to trap me--dogging me--for 25 years." Hisvoice tightens. "It all goes back to an old grudge in the '70s with a broad named Marie Palladini. She's a fed. I grabbed her on the butt one day at the airport just after I got back from South America. She told me, 'I'll get you no matter what.' Ask Palladini."

I do. Palladini smiles. "What I told Cook was: 'You're gonna get caught someday.' He was real good, so good we never could catch him--until now."

For 18 years, Marie Palladini, 41, mother of two young daughters, has worked undercover for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, minus two years to practice law. She is barely five feet and weighs 112 pounds. At her request, the description ends there.

She grins impishly. "Hey, the bad guys look at me and the last thing in the world they dream of is I could be a federal agent. I've posed as an interior decorator, college student, gofer for a big shot, a rich guy's girl friend. When we had an Air Canada uniform, I was a stewardess. I really enjoy catching bad guys."

Undercover agent George Phocas joins us. Phocas, 34, wears a flashy gold chain and imitation gold Rolex. His hair is stylishly tousled over his forehead. Phocas says with professional satisfaction: "I can't cross the border without being stopped by customs."

I ask about morale, frustration, their huge caseload.

Palladini is stoic. "We're stretched so thin with just five [undercover] agents in L.A., we could throw in the towel. But we don't. All we can do is laugh and do the best we can."

Phocas nods in agreement, but speaks in frustration. "Often other agencies don't even know who we are, what we do." He taps the pistol on his belt. "I walk into a police station and they react: 'You carry a gun?' I answer the phone and it's: 'My cat's in a tree,' or, 'I want to buy a fishing license.' A guy at a commissary wanted to place an order with me for deer meat."

The conversation turns to a disturbing new pattern in animal trafficking. "Drug smugglers are moving in," Phocas says. "They can make the same money doing wildlife without the risk of armed rip-offs, long prison sentences. Animals and drugs come from the same countries, the same places."

"It's Economics 101," Phocas adds. "Look at the demand. Reptiles were a back-room business until the 1980s. Now I defy you to find a pet store without a reptile section."

As the market grew, so did the influx of illegal reptiles, especially in Southern California. Palladini recalls: "We feared the worst--that one of our own had turned." Her voice drops. "We were right. We caught him ourselves." In the same investigation that indicted fish importer Norm Golub, Daniel G. Noether, a federal wildlife inspector for 10 years, pleaded guilty in April, 1988, to taking $30,000 in payoffs. He helped smuggle into Los Angeles more than 50,000 South American reptiles such as iguanas, boa constrictors, turtles, teju lizards and caimans. He was sentenced to a year in prison and 2,000 hours of community service. Also pleading guilty were Gene Roscher, 50, and his wife, Chris, 43, reptile dealers in Los Angeles since 1978. They were fined $7,500 and served 600 hours of community service.

"That's behind us," Gene Roscher says.

Indeed. The Roschers are now considered one of the largest reptile importers in the nation. "We buy and sell 10,000 to 15,000 animals a week," Gene says. Incoming shipments for a typical week last July, he says, included 13,000 tarantulas, scorpions, pythons, turtles, tortoises, poison arrow and red-eyed tree frogs, iguanas, monitor lizards, water dragons and assorted small lizards and geckos from Chile, Egypt, El Salvador, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Vietnam and West Africa.

Generally, the Roschers only do business with wholesalers who sell to pet stores, but on occasion they'll work directly with small dealers and collectors such as Bob Perez of Canoga Park. Perez has a fondness for tortoises. "Been buying 'em, selling 'em, keeping 'em as pets since I was a kid . . . [it's been a] full-time business since I was 20," says Perez, 28, a bachelor. "Tortoises, live up to 200 years and, by far, are the most intelligent of reptiles." And expensive, too.

Perez says he recently sold a Galapagos Island tortoise born in captivity for $2,500. He's now negotiating to buy a 450-pound tortoise apparently brought 20 years ago from the Aldabra Islands off the coast of Madagascar. "Aldabra tortoises have sold for $15,000," Perez says, adding quickly, "but I'm small time compared to the Roschers. They're big!"

The Roschers store their animals in a windowless cinder-block building near Downtown. Inside are rows of plywood stalls outfitted with tree limbs, rocks and bits of foliage. I park alongside several hundred two-foot lizards and skinks basking in cages stacked on the sidewalk. Chris Roscher sprinkles them with a hose. "They're called monkey-tail skinks 'cause they hang by their tails," Chris explains. She is short and chunky, gruff but friendly. Her sometime nickname among importers is "Medusa," the mortal Gorgon of Greek mythology with snaky locks.

Chris grins. "That's me, 'The Snake Lady.' " She kneels next to a wriggling black mound. "Emperor scorpions from Africa," she says. "We sell them by the hundreds as pets. Very nonaggressive."

As proof, Chris buries her hands into the scorpions. "Ow! Oh, one got me!" she mutters. Unconcerned, she scoops up a couple dozen. A few scamper up her arms. Carefully, she tilts her hands. The scorpions tumble off. She glances at the tiny red puncture on her hand. "I'll have a hard little bump . . . less than a bee sting."

"Now that we're big, everybody wants to sell us, or knife us in the back," Gene says. "Somebody--maybe feds, other reptile dealers, always trying to set us up. They'll call: 'I wanna buy some Gila monsters [protected]. Heard you had 'em, Gene."' His voice is resigned. "Reptiles [the dealers] are cutthroat, vicious." He smiles thinly. "But not like fish [dealers]. They're worse. They're animals."

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