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U.S. Returns Smuggled Birds to Mexico

August 23, 2007

SAN DIEGO — They were caught coming into the U.S. illegally from Mexico, sedated and hidden under blankets or in duffel bags. On Wednesday, 149 parrots and parakeets seized from smugglers were sent home.

The neon-green birds, which had been held in quarantine for up to 18 months on U.S. soil at San Diego’s Otay Mesa border crossing, were handed over in cages to Mexican authorities. They will be returned to native habitats in southern Mexico or kept for breeding purposes if veterinarians determine they cannot survive in the wild.

Strict quarantine rules, partly in response to outbreaks of exotic Newcastle disease in California, have created a thriving black market for pet birds, authorities say. Talking parrots like those returned Wednesday – some cawing in Spanish or calling for “Lolita” – can fetch up to $1,000 apiece.

“This is all about money,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Perry, whose prosecution of animal smuggling cases has earned her the nickname “Bird Lady.”"It’s all about getting around the quarantine, which can be very expensive.”

A woman stopped at San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing late one June night faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines after pleading guilty last month to bringing in 47 Amazon parrots and half-moon conures without permits. Both species are protected by international trade restrictions on endangered animals, according to court records.

A man who was also stopped in June transporting 10 baby Amazon parrots at San Ysidro faces up to a year in prison if he is convicted of violating wildlife importation rules.

Smugglers routinely quiet birds with sedatives to stop them from talking or moving in transit, usually by spiking food put in boxes or duffel bags, sometimes with tequila.

“This is the black market – they certainly aren’t using veterinary-approved methods,” said Lorraine Concha, an assistant special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.

Smugglers tend to use the busy border entry points in San Diego, hoping to avoid detection, rather than quieter crossings further east. ICE and U.S. Fish and Wildlife are continuing to investigate, Concha said.




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