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updated: 3/3/2011 5:01 PM

Many tales of animal smugglers who got caught

Air Pockets

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Did you hear about the woman from Thailand who tried to hide a baby tiger in her luggage? She drugged him and then packed him with other stuffed animals. It caused quite a roar with Thai security agents when their equipment detected a live animal in her bag. Now she's the one who will probably wear the stripes.

The Thai woman isn't the first to try to illegally fly exotic animals out of a country. This past July, Mexico City airport agents noticed a man flexing unusually large muscles under his T-shirt. Turned out he was "monkeying" around. Literally. The man had more than a dozen tiny Titi monkeys strapped to his body.

And then there was the woman last November who caused quite a stir with customs officers in Stockholm with a chest that could rival Dolly Parton's. She could have been an ad for the Playtex Living Bra. Only hers was actually alive. It was stuffed with 75 wriggling snakes.

Some of these smugglers are quite innocent. Take the 10-year-old girl named Carley who boarded an AirTran flight out of Atlanta last June with her newly acquired pet, a tiny turtle named Bug. Had she hidden it in her pocket instead of letting crew members "ooh" and "ahh" over the cute little guy, she would have probably gotten away with the crime. But a flight attendant recognized the old shell game and had the plane returned to the gate and the turtle removed before the 4-inch Red Eared Slider could cause irreparable damage to the flight. But I digress.

Some travelers smuggle these animals into the country for the sheer excitement of owning an exotic animal and the glee associated with getting away with something you shouldn't be doing. But the majority view it as a well-paying career.

A traveler with larceny in his heart may purchase a tiny Titi monkey for as little as $10 from the black market in Peru. If he manages to sneak it into the United States, that little ape could bring him a cool $1,000 in our black market.

Exotic birds can be purchased for a song in several South American countries. But if you get caught smuggling one in, you'll be singing another tune.

While animal smuggling ranks right up there with drug trafficking, it isn't the profitability of the trade that worries our Department of Agriculture. The biggest concern is what might be stowing away on the exotic animal.

It is believed that birds smuggled into California may have carried the Newcastle virus, which became an epidemic and caused the death of millions of birds and poultry during the 1970s. And diseases like SARS and monkey pox were spread from animals to people.

Last February, a customs officer in the airport at Melbourne, Australia, was suspicious of the way a man was walking. When they searched him, they found the fellow was wearing tights and had two pigeons stuffed inside each leg. While not exactly exotic animals, the birds cost him a few bills and jail time. Who's the pigeon now? Travelers need to look at the whole picture before trying to pull the wool over the government.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached at gailtodd@aol.com

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