Meet Miami's Top Dog Inspector: He Sniffs Out Animal Trafficking

Dec 21, 2016

When most of us think of Miami International Airport, we don't think of scorpions, sloths, sharks or spiders.

But it turns out the airport is kind of a zoo. Because in addition to being one of the United States' busiest passenger airports, MIA is one of the busiest American airports for importing animals and animal products.

"Definitely one of the top five in terms of wildlife, the traffic that comes through," says Inspector Amir Lawal of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "Basically we're the hub for Central and South America and the Caribbean."

Lawal knows from experience. He's half of the K-9 unit that works against animal trafficking in South Florida's airports and seaports.

The other half of the unit just goes by Viper.

Viper and Inspector Amir Lawal check packages on a conveyor belt during training. The Miami-based pair is one of only seven Fish & Wildlife Service K-9 inspection units in the entire U.S.
Credit Tom MacKenzie / USFWS

He's a black Labrador, about 5 years old -- although Lawal can't say for certain because Viper is a rescue dog. After 13 weeks of training -- including 10 weeks with Lawal -- Viper reported for duty in Miami in 2013. Back then, he was one of only four Fish & Wildlife Service detector dogs in the entire country, part of the first class to get trained.

Today, there are still only seven detector dogs in the entire Fish & Wildlife Service, in charge of covering an area from Puerto Rico to Alaska.

"[Viper] is the only dog from here to Chicago," Lawal said.

An international treaty known as CITES helps prevent animal trafficking by banning or restricting trade in endangered and threatened animals. CITES requires licenses and other documentation for animals, animal products and plants being imported and exported.

It falls to inspectors like Lawal and Viper to uphold those regulations. They make sure endangered animals aren't being smuggled into the country, and that legally imported animals have the proper documentation.

And sometimes, inspectors' duties go beyond inspections.

This fall, Lawal, Viper and several other of Miami's Fish & Wildlife Service officers hosted a group of visitors from Africa. The gamekeepers, filmmakers and animal trafficking lawyers were invited by the U.S. State Department to spend several weeks touring anti-trafficking operations here. In South Florida, they got a behind-the-scenes tour of efforts to prevent animal trafficking through MIA. First, inspectors showed off an endoscope and unpacked and inspected boxes of spiders, scorpions and African clawed frogs; then, Lawal and Viper did a couple of mock searches, seeking out animal products hidden in boxes and on shelves.

"Seahorse is going to smell fishy," Lawal explained, "translating" (as he put it) for Viper. "When he goes by something that’s also fishy... he’s going to say, there’s something fishy here; it’s not exactly seahorse. So you might need to check that out."

Lawal said Viper does something similar when searching for illegal ivory. He detects the smell of dentine -- the calcified tissue that makes up ivory -- and tusks and teeth.

"It might be walrus, it might be another animal’s teeth," Lawal said, "but he’s gonna let me know... this smells similar to teeth."

Aziz Ahmed, a filmmaker and photographer from Ethiopia,  said he was impressed by how well Viper and Lawal communicate.

"They work so fast," he said. Fish & Wildlife officers don't inspect every shipment of animals that comes through the airport, but in Miami's heat, with live animals waiting in crates, speed is vital.

Ahmed took dozens of photos of Viper, from every angle, including face-to-face.

"I wish I had a dog like that," he said.