What to Know
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is on the front lines at the JFK mail branch, where nearly 1 million packages come through
- The federal agents there are trained to look for suspicious packages, and find protected species illegally coming into the U.S.
- Last year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigated more than 10,000 cases, resulting in several arrests and $2 million in fines
Lions, tigers, and bears: inside the country’s largest mail room tucked away at John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens is a zoo of sorts.
Every day, nearly one million packages come through the JFK mail branch, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife is on the front lines, protecting wildlife and humans. The dedicated group of 210 federal special agents and 120 wildlife inspectors knows what's on the front line.
During a recent visit by News 4 for an exclusive report, the federal wildlife agents revealed the type of things they find daily. One package contained a black bear skin with a tag still on its leg, shipped under the guise of a rug.
"This is a cited protected species. It requires to be accompanied by a permit," said Supervisory Wildlife Inspector Naimah Aziz.
Inspectors also found boxes of chocolates hiding bags of dried seahorses. And a box labeled "jewelry" instead contained bats and birds -- a potential health risk to humans. Aziz said they would contact the Centers for Disease Control to give them oversight on that shipment.
And some of the animals in packages discovered are very much alive.
"Scorpions, millipedes, snakes, salamanders, you name it -- if it can fit in a box it’ll come through the mail," said Aziz.
Fish and Wildlife recently rescued finches hidden in a purse, and saved tropical fish, lizards and king cobras. In 2017, this team inspected 28,905 shipments of wildlife and wildlife products.
Live animals and some specimens are taken back to "The Lab" in Valley Stream.
Inspector Aziz and the team have seen hundreds of different animals -- including the pangolin, which Aziz says is "the most trafficked mammal in the U.S., the most trafficked mammal in the world. This animal could not exist in 50 years if things aren’t done to protect them."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the vast majority of the $4 billion wildlife industry is above board, but "there is a lawful way to import a lot of these things," according to the agency's Joe Rousseau.
They also say many people inadvertently buy illegal wildlife while on vacation or online. U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents also have the same authority as other agencies -- they can go undercover and make arrests.
"What we’re doing is making a huge difference," said Paul Chapelle, resident agent in charge of New York. "We’ve put smugglers out of business."
Last year, Fish and Wildlife investigated more than 10,000 cases, resulting in several arrests, with criminals facing more than 25 years behind bars and $2 million in fines.
When it comes to protecting wildlife, the public can help play a role -- in fact, agents say some of their biggest cases were because people spoke up. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an anonymous tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-844-FWS-TIPS.