By By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Columbo, the hawaii Agriculture beagle, sends Joseph Honjiyo
unpacking his fruit box at Honolulu International Airport.
Honjiyo's boxes held only fruits, all legal.

Snake sneaks

The state department of agriculture
believes most snakes brought into Hawaii
are smuggled by local folks

By Candace Meierdiercks

While money and efforts are focused on keeping the brown tree snake out of Hawaii, that slithering reptile isn't the state's biggest snake threat.

People are.

Of the 144 snakes captured by state agriculture inspectors in the 1990s, inspectors estimate about 100 were illegal pets smuggled into the islands.

And they suspect a lot more pet snakes are still out there.

Almost all confiscated snakes are pet types, like boas and pythons, found in local homes and businesses. Hawaii residents are also the ones turning in snakes under the anonymous amnesty program, said Domingo Cravalho, Jr., State Department of Agriculture's Plant Quarantine spokesman.

It's the lure of owning a rare, exotic animal, plus living on the edge of the law, that drives smugglers.

"Because (smugglers) think it's a challenge, they want to do it even more," Cravalho said.

But getting illegal snakes into the state isn't difficult.

A Kaneohe man told the Star-Bulletin that it was "easier than pie" for him to sneak a baby boa constrictor through the Honolulu airport in his carry-on bag. After three years, the snake got too big for him to handle, so he turned it in under the state's amnesty program in 1995. He bought the snake for $50 in Las Vegas.

"It's scary and sad because it's the local people doing it," Cravalho said. "We're finding more local people who are born and raised in Hawaii bringing these things in. They should be the very people trying to keep (snakes) out."

And smugglers can buy or catch their snakes anywhere on the mainland.

A snake bust last month in Nanakuli revealed that a smuggler bought his snakes in a Las Vegas pet store, where buyers are asked to give their names and addresses.

"We try to keep a record of anyone who buys a reptile," said Van Weiser, district manager for Petco, the Las Vegas store that sold the snakes. But Nevada law doesn't require such a record.

Weiser said he wouldn't deny a snake to anyone with a Hawaii address because "that's discrimination." Most of Petco's employees don't realize that snakes and some other animals are illegal in Hawaii, and he imagines other pet stores nationally are the same way.

Security officials from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas said they have caught people trying to bring snakes on airplanes, but that the situations are rare.

Once snakes get on the plane, Hawaii agriculture inspectors rely on "the honor system" with declaration forms, Cravalho said.

The state inspects commercial flights coming from the mainland with two special dog teams.

The task is difficult, Cravalho said, because there is a fine line between inspecting people and harassing them. Hawaii's tourism depends heavily on visitor convenience.

For example, snake-sniffing beagles mostly patrol the baggage-claim areas of United and Amercian airlines. And the dogs will only sniff bags that are on the ground. People are never searched.

"We can't hassle the tourists," Cravalho said.

Flights from Guam, home of the brown tree snake, are still top priority. These planes are federally inspected, too.

But the state-federal relationship is sensitive when it comes to illegal pests.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is willing to help the state catch suspected snake smugglers, but only if asked. Wildlife agents can't take it upon themselves to search incoming cargo from the mainland.

Because Hawaii is under a federal quarantine, agencies are busy inspecting cargo and people leaving Hawaii for the mainland. And U.S. Customs Service will catch the illegals on foreign arrivals.

Agriculture officials also believe that there's a seller's market for illegal reptiles in Hawaii.

Cravalho said snakes could be sold here easily for three times the original price. Snakes on the mainland sell on average between $100 and $350.

Snakes are also easily maintained.

All they need is a live mouse (or rat, depending on their size) every other week.

Some snakes don't need to eat for months.

Female snakes can also store sperm inside their bodies for a year, making breeding an easy task.

Cravalho said he's still confident that most island residents would rather keep snakes out of the state. Most of their captures are from neighbors' sightings.

Agriculture inspectors also visit pet stores once in a while and ask the managers if they've sold an "unusual" number of mice lately. If pet store employees suspect a customer is keeping a snake, they say so, but rarely know for sure, Carvalho said.

State inspections
of mail limited

By Candace Meierdiercks

Even if a mail package has "live snakes" written all over it, the state cannot inspect the parcel.

The state has no authority to check U.S. first-class or express mail because of various privacy laws. This makes smuggling snakes through the mail easy, said Domingo Cravalho Jr., Department of Agriculture Plant Quarantine spokesman.

Snakes are one of the only large animals hardy enough to endure a trip through the mail process, because they can survive weeks without food and water. This also makes the post-office route attractive to smugglers, Cravalho said.

"It's a thorn in our side," he said.

State inspectors can only bring their dogs to sniff out packages from commercial couriers, like United Parcel Service and Federal Express.

First-class mail from the U.S. Postal Service is "sealed against inspection," said Byron Dare, Hawaii postal inspector. Opening or looking into packages is a federal offense.

Dare said postal inspectors sometimes feel like they're stuck in the middle of the debate. On one side, there's the state, that tries desperately to keep alien pests out of the islands. On the other are Americans who want their mail quickly and private.

"We can't break the law to enforce another law," he said.

A federal agency, such as the FBI, can search mail, but only if it gets a search warrant without holding the package more than the next scheduled delivery. Delaying the mail is also a federal offense.

Though the post office has its own inspectors, they're often busy looking for guns, bombs and drugs. Dare said other federal inspectors write affidavits for search warrants daily, but the post office still has its customers to think about.

The post office will tell federal and state agriculture officials if they suspect a package, but only if illegal activity is obvious.

"We look for things like if there's too much postage, or something is leaking or there are stains on the package," Dare said.

A phony return address is also a major clue.

Sometimes, inspectors will contact the addressee and get permission to open a suspicious package. People usually agree to it, Dare said.

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