LOS ANGELES (CN) – The “bird feathers and droppings on his socks” and “birds’ tail feathers visible under his pants” gave him away, federal prosecutors said in accusing two men of smuggling birds to the United States from Vietnam. Inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport found that Sonny Dong had 14 live birds wrapped in cloth around his legs, and found more Asian songbirds at his cohort’s home, prosecutors say.
Dong, 46, and Duc Le, 34, both of Garden Grove, face an 8-count federal indictment of conspiring to smuggle birds and making false statements. Both men were arrested in April after the incident at the airport. The subsequent search of Le’s home turned up 51 more songbirds, all of which have been quarantined, prosecutors say.
Some officials say that more money is made smuggling birds and animals into the United States than any other product except drugs. Thousands of animals die in the trade. Eighteen more birds were found in Dong’s luggage, and five of them were dead, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Dong allegedly had strapped to his legs three red whiskered bul-buls – which is listed as an injurious species – four magpie robins and six shama thrush.
Bul-buls are called injurious because they feast upon and spread exotic plants. They are considered fearless – to the extent that a bird can be fearless – and are popular pets in Asia, being easily trained to sit on the hand.
If convicted, Le faces up to 26 years in prison and Dong up to 10 years.
Smuggling of protected species carries stiff penalties, and some advocates for wild birds say that actually prevents federal prosecutors from doing their jobs.
One parrot breeder who has worked with federal agents to nail smugglers says that federal prosecutors and some judges think it “ridiculous” to prosecute and imprison people for long terms for smuggling birds. Birds’ defenders have had to carry out quiet campaigns to educate prosecutors about the damage that smugglers do to animals and habitat. Several violent deaths have occurred among parrot smugglers. Chicks can be robbed from the nest and bought for $5 apiece in South America, Central America and Mexico, and sold for $1,000 and up in the United States. An easy way to rob nests is to chop down trees, which selectively destroys breeding habitat.