Naimah Aziz stood in a stream of recent arrivals from Beijing and plucked out a young man to join her at a metal table at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. She instructed him to open his luggage; he obliged. She asked him questions about his life in the United States (Adelphi University student in New York) and his trip to China (visiting family over winter break) while removing the contents of his bags. Neatly folded shirts and pants. Toiletry kit. Boxes of candy labeled in Chinese characters. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspector uncovered a possible hit: several plastic pouches containing an animal product.
Aziz ran through her checklist. First, she considered the species (squid) and whether it was protected under any federal or international laws (no). Then she focused on the quantity. She counted five packages, which indicated personal consumption, not commercial usage. The man's tentacled snack was permitted into the country.
"You can put the squid back now," she told the clearly relieved man.
She returned her gaze to the crowd, staring at passing bags as if she had X-ray vision. Her mission: to expose any wildlife coming into the country. Her superpower: a badge.
Every day at airports, seaports and other points of entry across the nation, more than 100 wildlife inspectors examine suitcases, backpacks, purses and boxes arriving from overseas. The government employees are seeking organisms that individuals may have innocently - or intentionally - carried or shipped into the country. Their job, "to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people," is not for the squeamish.
"You gotta leave your stomach at the door," said Aziz, who wears blue disposable gloves in the field.
Although the officers' arrows are precise, their target is expansive. They hunt for flora and fauna that rogues are trying to sneak into the country through common channels such as commercial airlines and the U.S. Postal Service. They confiscate illegal souvenirs from ill-informed tourists. They scrutinise documents and licenses required for specific plants and animals, and - cue the "Law and Order" theme music - will chase down the perpetrators if necessary.
"Part of the job is triaging the legal trade," said Aziz, who has been an inspector since 2008. "It might not necessarily be ivory or rhino horn. Maybe they don't have the proper permits and are trying to smuggle it into the country."
Airports specialise in certain goods, based on their location and passenger population. In Houston, inspectors frequently uncover hunting trophies from Africa. In Los Angeles, they unearth tropical fish and coral from the Asia-Pacific Region. However, at JFK, a hub of foreign flights and home to the world's largest international mail facility, the inspectors see it all: elephant ivory from Africa; snakehead fish from Asia; a colony of rabbits from Germany. The specimen can be living, such as exotic birds tucked inside hair curlers or strapped to human body parts; or dead, such as the butterfly wings in a Damien Hirst artwork.
"JFK is the most diverse airport," Aziz said. "There's never a boring day."
On a chilly morning last winter, Aziz arrived at the agency's New York District Office of Law Enforcement dressed for business in a tan button-down shirt, khaki pants and pulled-back hair. With more than 143,000 international planes disgorging 22.4 million passengers a year at JFK, plus 1.9 million tons of air cargo and mail, someone is guaranteed to slip up. Make that several someones.
To prepare for the day, the inspectors familiarise themselves with the incoming flights. Some destinations are known for their active wildlife trade, such as Vietnam and the Philippines for fish, birds and turtles; China for elixirs featuring ginseng, black bear bile and musk deer glands; and Vanuatu for pearls. The staff also pays attention to the calendar, noting special events that might land wildlife on the holiday menu or gift list.
"For the Chinese New Year, they want their holiday foods just like we want our turkey and cranberry sauce," said Paul Chapelle, the New York District's resident agent in charge, mentioning such Asian delicacies as shark fin and mitten crab. (Shark fins are permitted, depending on the species and state laws. Dead crabs are allowed, but living crustaceans require a permit.)
In the run-up to the festive winter season, the officers see an uptick in caviar and pricey animal-skin bags among travelers returning from Europe. Over Spring Break, they notice a surge in sea-turtle trinkets, conch shells and coral in the luggage of Caribbean vacationers. Twice a year, Manhattan holds New York Fashion Week, the sartorial happening that turns JFK's mail room into a giant wardrobe closet. The officers check the clothing down to the crocodile watch straps, sable-fur trim and mother-of-pearl buttons. The designers must declare the wildlife materials on their garments. If they don't, their creations will never walk the runway.
"High-end fashion takes up a large part of our time and energy," Aziz said.
To determine whether a wildlife product can legally enter the United States, the inspectors consider state and federal laws and international treaties, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Nearly 185 countries support CITES, which protects more than 35,000 plant and animal species, including the orange-knee tarantula, the giant catfish, the aardwolf and the gorilla. The agency also factors in the regulations of individual nations.
"We really respect other countries' conservation laws," Chapelle said. "It has to be compliant."
Once an inspector deems an object illegal, the agency must dispose of it. Discarding a Siberian tiger head or a narwhal tooth is not as easy as, say, tossing a dead goldfish or house plant.
"We destroy any seized wildlife that cannot be used for scientific or educational purposes," Chapelle said. "We use a number of methods to destroy - burning, crushing, cutting."
If the animals are still living, the agency might return them to the originating country or donate them to a refuge, zoo or aquarium. In 2004, the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, New York, received a gift of two dozen African penguins seized by the agency. The staff cuts up shoes, belts, wallets and purses (shed a tear for permitless Hermes Birkin bags made of protected skins such as alligator, crocodile or monitor lizard); burns sea horses, cosmetics and ivory; and dumps caviar down the sink. If the object is part of a larger criminal investigation, it becomes evidence. About 1.3 million items live at the National Wildlife Property Repository, an agency warehouse northeast of Denver. Its New York District Office of Law Enforcement also houses a collection that it uses for educational and training purposes.
The windowless storage space a few miles from JFK resembled the overstock room of a natural-history museum or a flea market run by a taxidermist. Animals, whole and piecemeal, covered stainless-steel countertops. A chirpless aviary contained a flamingo, king penguin, snowy owl and green parrot perched on a branch. Skeletons and skulls of a tapir, cougar and several primates formed a macabre lineup. In the center of the room, a table displayed a freakish still life of jarred turtle eggs, brain coral, a puffin, one Italian high-heeled shoe, a purse with a dwarf crocodile head closure, a jaguar-and-feather head dress and two cans of iguana soup.
"I think a lot of people read about this stuff, but I don't think they realize how their individual activities on vacation have an impact on the wildlife," Chapelle said. "Conservation isn't as ingrained as recycling."
Aziz entered a drafty, cavernous warehouse on the grounds of the airport and walked by teetering stacks of cardboard boxes. Ten federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and Customs and Border Protection, receive their mail at the 800,000-square-foot processing facility. She stopped at a table with a sign that read, in plain type, "F&W."
"Everything here is a surprise," she said of the squat skyline of parcels.
In their quest to find wildlife, the inspectors follow several scents. They receive referrals from other departments and spot-check passengers' luggage in the international arrivals terminal. Sometimes, they just grab a package and rip it open.
Aziz picked up a box and checked its shipping label: Jalisco, Mexico. She held the item, bound in Spanish newspaper print, and tried to guess the contents.
"This is definitely a horn, a goat horn," she said.
She opened the bubble wrap to reveal an animal skull decorated in tiny beads and floral patterns.
"It's very pretty," she said of the decorative object. "I would have to see exactly what kind of ruminant it is. Maybe a bighorn sheep. It should have been declared."
She snapped some photos and sent them to her colleague at the office, who would dig a little deeper.
Aziz grabbed a knife from her pants pocket and slashed open the next package.
"We got wildlife in this one," she declared of the shipment from Vietnam. "It's ground-up shell, for coughing and phlegm associated with smoking."
The discovery triggered a memory, about the time the agency's inspectors seized 200-to-300 boxes of tiger bone.
"I know that we are not 100 percent effective. We can't triage all of the wildlife the same," she said. "We spend more time on the wildlife that is more stressed, like tigers and pangolins."
Aziz moved on to a container from South Africa. She pulled out a plastic bag stuffed with tusks.
"This is not reasonable," she said. "No person needs 16 warthog tusks."
Next up: pouches filled with bats, dragonflies and scorpions from Indonesia.
"These are definitely not fake," she said, poking at the dead critters peering at her through the plastic.
After rooting out fly-fishing flies made of bird feathers from Kenya, Aziz let out an "uh-oh, we got ourselves a skin."
She rolled out a black-and-white patterned hide on the floor. Of the four zebra species, she said three are protected. The shadow striping on its rump area told her everything she needed to know: The animal was a plains zebra and therefore allowed into the country.
She folded up the rug and checked the time. An Air China plane from Beijing was scheduled to arrive soon. Aziz had a flight to catch, and possibly some wildlife, too.