House of horrors: inside the US wildlife repository – photo essay


Oliver Milman & Matthew Staver, The Guardian

Date Published

See link for photos.

If the US had a national house of horrors, it would probably be the federal government compound that lies on the fringes of Denver, Colorado, incongruously set within a wildlife reserve where bison languorously dawdle against a backdrop of the snow-crowned Rockies.

The National Wildlife Property Repository, operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), is a warehouse of the macabre. It’s a Noah’s ark of protected deceased biodiversity that smugglers attempted to get into the US before being caught by FWS staff at airports and ports.

Shelves bow under the weight of elephant tusks, leopard cubs in shocked repose, crocodile skin boots and quack medicines made from mushed up parts of turtles and bears.

Perched on top of the shelving units are taxidermy tigers. There’s a bag filled with 40,000 sea horses. Towards the back of the warehouse there are two rhino heads in a crate. 

There are about 1.5m items at the repository, with approximately 200 specimens arriving each week for storage and education purposes.

“This is just a thimbleful, just one speck of what comes into one port in one year, and it doesn’t even include live animals imported to be pets,” says Coleen Schaefer, the repository’s supervisor.

Schaefer spent three years as an inspection agent attempting to stem the tide at Los Angeles port, targeting traffickers who cram snakes into Pringles cans or strap 20 exotic birds to their torso, before deciding she couldn’t face the daily heartbreak of euthanising animals any more.

“This is more depressing though,” Schaefer says, glancing at a lamp that’s been made from a zebra’s leg.

New York City and Los Angeles are the main entry points for illegal wildlife products into the US. If they evade inspection, the potions end up in certain alternative medicine outlets, the stuffed animals in curio shops, and the severed heads of megafauna on the walls of people who want to add a touch of flamboyance to the ranch.

The live animals invariably end up in the hands of collectors or those who wish to hold domestic safaris – the number of tigers in Texas, held for myriad purposes, now rivals that of the wild population in Asia.

“The US is a big player in all this, you can’t get around that,” Schaefer says. “We are a consumer nation. We aren’t the source country of rhinos, or tigers or elephants, but they are here and they wouldn’t be unless someone was importing them.”

Schaefer has just two members of staff to receive and catalogue the array of animal parts at the repository.

Resources to catch smugglers are also stretched at American ports and airports. And the situation could deteriorate further – the Trump administration has requested (pdf) that the FWS budget be cut next year, resulting in more than 300 staff losing their jobs.

“There aren’t many inspectors in the country and even when you do find something, it’s hard to find an assistant district attorney who wants to take your case over some murderer for prosecution. It often ends with a slap on the wrist,” Schaefer says.

“Wildlife crime used to be just someone trying to make a fast buck but now it’s very organised and it’s hard to catch these people.” 

As crime syndicates change, so does the type of smuggled products. Staff have recently noticed an influx of ivory hacked from juvenile elephants as poachers struggle to find enough full-grown adults to meet demand. 

“They will take it off a baby as soon as they see it, it’s so valuable just to make a trinket,” says Schaefer. “Biologists are going to find whole age classes of elephants are missing.”

“It’s frustrating. We could lose elephants in the wild in a decade. If we had more enforcement and also a different sentencing structure as a deterrent, that would really help.”