Baby cobras convalesce after customs seizure 13 poisonous snakes from foiled smuggling taken to Baltimore Zoo

May 15, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A baker's dozen of deadly baby cobras are convalescing at the Baltimore Zoo after they were seized by U.S. Customs agents who intercepted them as they were being smuggled into the United States.

The monocled cobras, which are native to Southeast Asia and are named for the single spot on their hood, were seized last month at the United Parcel Service hangar at Louisville International Airport after a package aroused the suspicion of a drug-sniffing dog. They were mailed from Germany and were destined for an address in Luray, Va.

The foot-long cobras were inside a pillow case in a small box labeled "bracelets" that was inside a plastic UPS shipping envelope, customs officials said. They were brought to Baltimore because its zoo was the closest one that stored the anti-venom for the highly poisonous snakes.

When reptile curator Anthony Wisnieski opened the pillow case on its arrival at the Baltimore Zoo on Friday, he found that five of the 18 snakes inside were dead. The 13 snakes that were still alive were not in good shape.

"They appeared to be very dehydrated and obviously they hadn't eaten for awhile," Wisnieski said. But after a few days of NTC TLC at the zoo's animal hospital, the snakes appear to be on the mend.

"Of the 13, 11 have fed and they're all drinking," Wisnieski said. With a diet of baby rodents, "they all seem to be healthy and they seem to be out of danger at this point."

That's good news. But this is not one of those typical heartwarming animal rescue stories -- nobody has been very happy to see these guys. They've been a headache for every jurisdiction that has had to handle them.

"I was pretty paranoid about them," said Special Agent Al Hundley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fredericksburg, Va., who took custody of the snakes after the U.S. Customs Service.

"I never took them out of the pillow case. I never had the nerve to do that," he said. "The first night, I took it out of the box. I put it inside of a .30-caliber military ammunition box. And then I put that inside of a .50-caliber ammunition box."

He may have been nervous, but imagine being the customs agents who found the critters. They were discovered on April 24 after a dog that was sniffing for drugs kept going back to it. "The dog didn't 'alert' on the package, but it kept showing interest," said Gary Frederick, port director of the U.S. Customs Service at Louisville International Airport.

"So we took it off the belt and opened it up. And when we did, there were the snakes," he said. "It was kind of good they had just come off the plane. It was cold and they weren't moving."

Some of the hangar workers weren't taking any chances. "Matter of fact, some of the people who work for UPS left the office kind of quick," Frederick said.

Customs officials delivered the package to the listed address in Luray, Va., and arrested a German citizen who accepted delivery. The man, whose name police would not release, is charged with felony smuggling and a violation of a federal statue prohibiting the mislabeling of a wildlife shipment.

The snakes are bound for the Black Hills Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, S.D., which has about 100 other cobras.

"It's real tough for Fish and Wildlife to find places for venomous snakes, and we're able to give them homes," said reptile curator Don Middaugh. "So we often end up with confiscated critters."

Pub Date: 5/15/96

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