And while it may seem too late for the 1.5 million pieces of contraband sitting inside the low, gray buildings of the Service’s National Wildlife Property Repository outside of Denver, Colorado, these items may still serve an educational purpose—and could even be used to help develop the tools needed to catch and prosecute traffickers.
At Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, teaching the public about wildlife trafficking often starts with simple exposure. Here in the facility’s shady Peacock Plaza, workers regularly engage with visitors not just about the live animals in the exhibits nearby, but also those in the wild that may be vulnerable to poaching.
Displaying contraband items on loan from FWS—including a sea-otter pelt and a baseball cap made from lion skin—elicits mixed reactions from guests, says the zoo’s child and family program supervisor, Jessie Maxwell.
“Some people are sad, some people are curious, some people are angry,” Maxwell says. These emotions can be a hook to start important conversations, such as how poaching can affect both exotic animals as well as ones native to Washington State, like elk or bear.
“Here in Seattle, you’re not going to have a rhino [run] through your backyard or anything like that, but wildlife trafficking, poaching—this can all happen here, locally.”
Maxwell says that while these items aren’t the main way the zoo tries to inspire action—the living, breathing rhinos, lions, and gorillas are a bit more interesting to most guests—the cap, pelt, and other items can help the zoo deliver important messages that apply both at home and away: Don’t hunt without a license; avoid unlawful vacation souvenirs; be aware of species sold through the exotic-pet trade; and know how to contact the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife if you observe poaching or another wildlife crime.
“We’re hoping to offer a lot of different tips and tricks,” says Maxwell. “People who want to participate by voting, people who want to participate in their purchasing choices, people who want to make different recreational choices—we try to offer all of these things so that something will resonate within people’s lives.”
In early May, the zoo opened a temporary rhino exhibit, which also features messaging about poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, including information about how voters can impact local laws. In 2015, for instance, a ballot initiative pushed the state to pass the Washington Animal Trafficking Act, which granted state authorities greater power in regulating trade and punishing traffickers.
Whether in a zoo or in the wild, “every animal now is in human care,” Maxwell says, “because people’s choices impact the environment and therefore impact the animals.”
The lion-skin baseball cap came from FWS to the zoo in 2015—and the agency’s Colorado facility regularly loans out items to researchers, schools, and other organizations. According to Sarah Metzer, a staff member at the repository, FWS lent out more than 6,800 contraband items during the past 12 months.