Anyone who has lost a bird dome, a stuffed crow, or an anthropomorphic fox to U.S. Customs over the year take note: your chance to retrieve your lost merchandise--legally!--might have come!
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--in a series of rolling online auctions--is selling off hundreds of thousands of confiscated items in order to clear out their warehouse and raise funds for wildlife conservation. Items found in the warehouse range from snake skin boots to "a beribboned walrus penis," Cape Buffalo heads to "a caiman, posed with a pipe in its mouth and an ashtray in its claws" (above, bottom image).
It should be mentioned that, "by law, the government can't sell anything containing, or even suspected of containing, an endangered species." Also, much of the higher-end contraband has been already sent to schools, zoos and museums for exhibits, and objects deemed crass are being withheld from the auction, so some of the more exotic, freaky, and museum-quality objects won't be finding their way to auction. Still, this auction promises to be a fascinating and contraversial one.
Uncle Sam Wants You to Bid on This Fine Weasel Fur Coat
Confiscated Wildlife Goods Are Auctioned; Boon or Bane for Conservation?
By STEPHANIE SIMON
COMMERCE CITY, Colo.—Uncle Sam is having a clearance sale, and it's heavy on genuine cobra-skin boots.
Also, python boots. Ostrich boots. And stylish footwear made from lizard, eel and kangaroo.
They all have to go as the federal government cleans out the National Wildlife Property Repository, a vast warehouse crammed with 1.5 million miscellaneous items containing bits of creatures great and small.
All the goods in the warehouse, from the shaggy Cape buffalo head to the beribboned walrus penis, have been seized at ports of entry by agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating laws regulating international trade in wildlife.
Warehouse supervisor Bernadette Atencio sends much of the contraband to schools, zoos and museums for exhibits. Ho-hum items that don't have much educational value are destroyed; she recently sent dozens of lizard-trim eyeglass cases to the incinerator. Ms. Atencio also disposes of all the medicinal potions that cross her desk—and the occasional bug-infested trophy leopard.
But she can never catch up. The Congressional Research Service pegs the illegal trade in wildlife products at more than $5 billion and perhaps as much as $20 billion a year world-wide. Nearly 200,000 items came into the warehouse last year, overwhelming Ms. Atencio's staff of four.
The solution? Clean house.
In a rolling online auction that started in February and will run through the summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service is selling off 300,000 items.
A dozen fur coats made from Siberian weasel sold for $4,450. A box of 270 acrylic key chains, each encasing "one small black salamander," went for $35. There are table lamps made of clam shells, drums covered with unspecified mammal skin, watches festooned with mother-of-pearl.
And a curious collection of clay dwarfs decorated with bits of python skin.
"What do you call those little figurines, the strange ones?" Ms. Atencio asked her colleague Doni Sprague.
Ms. Sprague had spent the afternoon sorting a jumble of new arrivals: 21 boxes of medicine containing dried sea horse; an antique sword inlaid with sea turtle shell; several bottles of foul-looking wine—purportedly good for treating arthritis—with pickled snakes coiled inside.
She looked up, casting about for a proper name for the figurines.
"They've got big hats," she said finally. "They're bizarre."
The auction disturbs some animal-rights activists who say an agency in the business of confiscating illegal goods shouldn't turn around and sell them because that only spurs demand. But Fish and Wildlife officials say they will use the money to preach conservation, and they've won some key backers.
The agency "needs more resources," said Crawford Allan, regulatory director of Traffic North America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping the illegal wildlife trade. "Rather than burn these things and create excess carbon," Mr. Allan said, "it's fine to sell them."
By law, the government can't sell anything containing, or even suspected of containing, an endangered species. Ms. Atencio also holds back items she thinks are crass.
That includes a belt made from the spotted fur of a Margay, a South American jungle cat. The unlucky creature's head, stuffed and glassy-eyed, is still attached, whiskers and all. It serves as the buckle. "That's just wrong," Ms. Atencio says.
She feels the same about a handbag made from a whole toad—tanned and shellacked, with a zipper down its belly. And about a knickknack made from a crocodilian reptile known as a caiman, posed with a pipe in its mouth and an ashtray in its claws. Looking at it, Ms. Atencio winces. "This is so degrading," she says. "And it's a waste of the resource—just to sit on someone's end table."
Much of the merchandise seized by inspectors is more pedestrian: belts, coats, wallets, jewelry and footwear, including top name brands (though the agency can't vouch for their authenticity). Such items are typically legal to import to the U.S.—but only with the proper paperwork.
When documents are missing, the goods end up here, in a 22,000-square-foot warehouse outside Denver.
Last time the government sold off surplus from the repository, at a live auction in 1999, it raised $500,000 for wildlife conservation.
Ms. Atencio hopes to match that take with the online bidding, run by Lone Star Auctioneers. The Texas company focuses on surplus government property, selling everything from bulldozers to diamond rings to Elvis Presley collectible coins.
Fish and Wildlife items—all sold as is—are posted online in batches, several dozen a week.
Jeremy Reed, an insurance salesman in Spring, Texas, stumbled across the site while looking for used-car auctions. He was drawn to some snazzy ostrich boots. Starting bid: $225 for 19 pairs, none his size. Mr. Reed figured he could resell them to a friend who owns a Western-wear store.
"I'm kind of entrepreneurial," says Mr. Reed.
By the time he started bidding, the price was up to $325. He went to $375—then watched in dismay as four new bidders jumped in. A week later, the boots were sold for $825.
Mr. Reed was disappointed. "There are people with really deep pockets," he says. "That kind of ruins it for bargain shoppers like me."
It's perfectly legal to resell most items bought at auction, so many pop up on eBay as soon as they leave federal control.
That angers Ashley Byrne, a senior campaigner with the animal-rights group PETA.
Ms. Byrne argues that the sale just stimulates demand for weasel coats and python-trimmed figurines. Instead, she says, the agency should donate the merchandise to PETA. She has laid in quite a store of fake blood to splash on the shiny green snakeskin shoes and the weathered leather jackets trimmed with fox fur. She would like to put the bloodied goods on display anywhere she can, next to video monitors rolling footage of "animals being skinned alive or bludgeoned to death."
The juxtaposition will make would-be shoppers queasy, Ms. Byrne promises. "As opposed," she says, "to perpetuating the idea that it's OK to turn an animal into a keychain."
You can read the full article and see the full slide show--from which the above images, by Matt McClain, were drawn--by clicking here. The action house dealing in this merchandise--Lone Star Auctioneers--can be accessed by clicking here.