Alberto González has a checklist 100 lines long of all the animals he’d like to see. As a wildlife inspector at the Port of Miami, he’s already more than halfway through it: He has set eyes on everything from the world’s most toxic snake, the taipan, to its biggest shark, the whale shark. The US Fish and Wildlife Service hires inspectors to stop the illegal wildlife trade – at up to R150 billion per year, it’s second only to arms and drug smuggling in the black market. “We have to understand and enforce a range of local and international laws, regulations, and treaties that limit the commercial traffic of endangered wildlife. We must be able to identify thousands of different species. And we verify that live animals are transported humanely,” González says. “Every day is a new challenge.” – Erin Mccarthy
Name: Alberto González
Years on job: 6
Tools of his trade
During PM’s visit, González inspected shipments of green anacondas, Goliath bird-eater tarantulas, smooth-fronted caimans, and yellow-footed tortoises (left). “With the exception of the tarantula, all the animals are protected by CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species,” he says. “Not all the animals are endangered, but CITES regulates their trade to prevent them from going extinct.” The biggest challenge is identification: “Species from the same genus can look alike except for one detail. One is protected, the other is not.”
Wildlife is shipped in bags or containers placed in crates. González dons a pair of Kevlar-lined gloves, then shines a torch inside the box to check for loose animals – such as the monitor lizards he recently found at large. “If we can handle the animal, then we’ll try to catch it,” he says. “If not, we close the box, contact the importer, and let them do it.”
In 2011, more than 36,8 million animals were imported and exported through Miami, which receives more venomous animals than any other port in the US – at least 16 000 last year – so snake hooks are essential. The inspectors relocate such shipments to a large room. “We don’t want to be in a confined space in case the animals get loose,” González says. “We want to have an open area where we can handle them with the hooks if necessary.”
After a bag has been placed on the floor, inspectors insert a plexiglas viewing tube to see what’s inside. Sometimes bags are mislabelled (by accident or on purpose), such as the one González peeped into that should have held frogs. The viewing tube showed its actual contents – scorpions – from a safe distance.