TBT - The Trouble With Pet Smuggling.

In 1979, after the Sandinista Rebels chased me out of Nicaragua into Honduras, I hung out around San Pedro Sula for awhile spending time with friends like Crazy Steve. Steve is worthy of a story or two - maybe a book. I will write one of his stories soon.

Steve introduced me to Jim Lamarque, from New Orleans. Jim had been there in Honduras for almost a year trying to get into the parrot export biz. He had finally given up with becoming a licensed exporter and was going to drive his van back to the U.S. border and on to NOLA.

Jim had two very nice parrots at the home he rented in SPS and I told him that U.S. law allowed him to return to the States with two pet birds as long as he has been out of the country for at least 6 months and he certifies that he had possession of his pets during that time. Jim did not want to get rid of his nice birds and was happy to hear the news. Then he asked me if I wanted a ride to Texas - and I was happy about the offer.

There was no major adventures on the long trip back to the Texas border - the usual fun and games at the border crossings in Guatemala and Mexico. Somewhere along the last 100 miles to the border we spotted a Gopher Tortoise crossing the road and I picked him up for the ride. Hard to shake the wildlife collecting habit.

We pulled into the U.S. border customs inspection station and declared the birds and tortoise - and we were directed to go into their special inspection area and wait. Having done this before with pet parrots I told Jim to relax and be patient. They will bring a Dept. of Agriculture vet to look at the birds and have us fill out the forms and then we will be on our way. And we waited, and waited, and then I went into the USDA office to ask what was the hold up. They said the new U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector wanted to see everything, but he was in McAllen (60 miles away) and we had to wait for his arrival.

On his arrival, the first thing Fish and Wildlife Officer Tom McKay did was threaten me with a big fine and jail time for having the Gopher Tortoise in my possession. I thought petty Latin bureaucrats were the worse - but this guy was so full of himself and his position that he made those other bureaucrats look like real amateurs. He was trying to build a case where I was smuggling an endangered animal across the border (this species of tortoise is protected in Texas, but not in Mexico) and I kept pointing out the fact that I declared the tortoise at customs and collected the animal in Mexico.

Seeing that he was losing at this potential 'wildlife bust' - he moved on to the parrots and proceeded to tell us that pet birds can only be brought into the U.S. through a few major ports, like New York or Miami - and not Brownsville, Texas. Again - I argued the point that I knew of several people who have legally brought their pet birds through Brownsville and that the USDA vet, who is present in the room, could confirm that. McKay said that he had the last word on what animals can come across the border and we are free to return to Mexico with the birds and ship them to a major port or leave them with him for 'disposal'. I looked at the vet - and the vet said that means they would have to kill them.

Back on the Mexican side we rented a motel room and put the birds inside - then crossed back into Brownsville to see an old friend that knows how to make 'informal entries'. McKay was going to make it too difficult and expensive for Jim to bring his pets home to New Orleans - so we would do an end run. My buddy followed us across into Matamoros to the motel and picked up the parrots, putting them in a secret compartment of the van - we would rendezvous later for the birds at another friend's house in Brownsville.

Jim had brought the birds up from Honduras in a large plastic dog carrier and now we would have to decide to leave the carrier in Mexico or take it empty through U.S. customs. I argued to leave it behind - but he insisted we take it. So that night at the customs shed we were questioned about the empty carrier in Jim's van and then told to wait, and wait, and wait. After about 90 minutes we were finally released and drove off - not suspecting anything amiss.

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at my friend's place that is located in a nice neighborhood - all seemed quiet and peaceful. Jim and I walked over to the 'transport van' parked out front and saw the pet parrots standing in the open rear door with my buddy, just looking around. Jim was very happy to see everything went alright and I went into the house, leaving the two birds and two friends talking at the back of the van. Next thing I know there is this huge commotion as several cars come screaming in from all directions and the doors are flying open with men jumping out with drawn weapons threatening to shoot. They drag me out of the house and throw me into the back of a sedan with Jim and the transporter friend. Yep - we had been set up, followed and busted. Now we are being taken in for interrogation and booking. Big mistake putting us altogether in the back of one vehicle. Whispering to one another, Jim said he would take the fall - so we came up with a story to stick with that would make any case against the transporter and myself very weak.

After a couple more hours of the agents grilling each of us in separate rooms and the three of us staying on script - they let the transporter and I go. Poor Jim got a big fine and probation after being remanded to the court in New Orleans. I went to see the USDA vet at the border and as he rolled his eyes he said that Officer McKay had the parrots destroyed. The vet had a few choice words to say about trying to work zealous and ambitious government agents like McKay - none of them flattering. What a waste - of beautiful birds, time and money for one man's ego.

Next week - Special Agent Tom McKay steps into deep dodo! Find that story here: "The Trouble With Turtle Meat"