THE YELLOW-THROATED warbler, crudely wrapped in tape, was tucked ignominiously behind a trashcan. It was recovered at a terminal of the Miami International Airport the week before I arrived. A smuggler — likely spooked by customs and border protection officers on a routine check — apparently stashed it there. It was still in its wrap, immobilized for the trip. No telling where the bird was bound or where it was from. (Yellow-throated warblers are small, lively birds that live throughout the southeastern United States and around the Gulf of Mexico.) Its journey, brutally begun in a forest trap somewhere, was cut short. A life of singing for its food as a caged pet was spared. Finds of this kind are not uncommon. Abandoned songbirds — bound tight or squeezed into hair curlers or pill bottles — are an almost regular occurrence at the airport these days. The yellow-throated warbler was unusual for another reason: Prior to the discovery, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (usfws) kept a list of 40 bird species known to be targeted by smugglers and trafficked across the country and abroad; the yellow-throated warbler marked the first time they intercepted its species.
“SO THAT WAS NUMBER 41,” says David Pharo. “It came in on one of the many flights that happened that day, and the people got nervous and ditched the bird.” Pharo is a special agent with the South Florida office of the USFWS. He and a team of about 20 other wildlife inspectors and agents enforce wildlife protection laws — including endangered species legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and others — across southeast Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. His work is often clandestine, sometimes involving long, in-depth investigations and elaborate sting operations. Vice-squad drug cops may get the glamour, but wildlife enforcement work — according to Pharo — is no less pulse quickening. Pharo is serious about it. He might just be serious about everything — perhaps even a little gloomy. His obvious gift for grave inscrutability is probably gold in the world of undercover police work.
Pharo is speaking to me in a windowless meeting room at the South Florida USFWS headquarters in Miami, just a stone’s throw from the airport. Eva Lara is here, too. She’s the supervisory wildlife inspector of the office, and, to my relief, she’s cheerfully enthusiastic. The contrast to her furrow-browed colleague is striking — good cop, bad cop.
The room is overbright. The building — squat and brick with a couple of bay doors and little else to let the outside in — has all the charm of a well-kept warehouse. Planes pass low overhead. Nearby, Miami International Airport extends like a bustling sprawl of runways, jet traffic, and terminals. It is America’s third-busiest airport for international passengers and number one for international freight. More flights leave here for Latin America and the Caribbean than from anywhere else across the United States.
Miami is a top international hub for the multibillion-dollar worldwide trade in wildlife.
All of this, of course, helps explain Miami’s reputation as a top international hub for the multibillion-dollar, worldwide trade in wildlife. Every month, about 1,200 to 1,500 legal and declared wildlife-related shipments pass through the South Florida region, says Lara. Of these, the vast majority (more than 85 percent) are live animals, and most, by far, are intended as pets. Many are tropical aquarium fish, she explains. Snakes, lizards, other exotic reptiles, and amphibians are popular too. Big spiders are big. Mammals are a little less so. Caged birds — a favorite in this city’s thriving Cuban community — have seen aboveboard shipments drop off here in recent years. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, Lara says, but improved captive breeding might have something to do with it. What’s certain is that not as many birds are traveling through Miami as once did. She catches herself: “Not legally.”