Dr. Tudor continues his look back at his years spent safeguarding the United States borders from potential animal pathogens in this third part of his mini-series on the more memorable moments of his job as a United States Department of Agriculture veterinary officer.
Like the U.S., other countries are also concerned about the possibility of introducing animal and livestock diseases through the entry of animals and animal products into their borders.
Those seeking to take animals outside of the U.S. not only need a health certificate from their veterinarian but also authorization of that certificate by a USDA veterinary medical officer. I performed that service for the air and seaports of San Francisco and Oakland California.
The Drug Lord and His Parrot
It was a daily routine for me to receive calls at my San Francisco airport office from U.S. citizens or foreign visitors to schedule appointments to sign and stamp health certificates for animals leaving the U.S. I also had a constantly updated watch list of wanted criminals to match against the names of my callers.
I was relatively new to my USDA position when one day such a criminal scheduled an appointment to take his parrot to South America. I alerted my superiors and waited instructions on how to deal with the situation.
I was surprised when I was contacted by the FBI and asked the date and time of the appointment. They asked me to clear my schedule of everything else so I could be available for the appointment. They were sending agents that morning to lie in wait and apprehend the drug kingpin that had requested my services. It didn’t seem too threatening, so I advised my supervisor and anxiously awaited to see how all of this would shake down.
When I arrived at my office the day of the appointment there were three FBI agents to greet me. They explained that they were not going to intervene immediately upon the man’s arrival but would wait until they saw how the appointment developed and assess the precautions he may have taken for such an occasion. Now I was nervous, I never wanted to be a cop. I questioned the agent more about this individual so I would know how I should act and what kind of direction they wanted the conversation to go. They said to just be routine, but keep alert because this man’s favorite weapon was an Uzi.
For those of you who don’t know, an Uzi is a small, concealable automatic machine gun invented by an Israeli gun maker. It is simple in design with a large ammunition clip and is used with accurately deadly outcomes. It was the rage of the underworld in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now I was petrified. How was I going to stay calm so this guy would not get suspicious? Could things get worse?
he agents retired to a break-room in the back of my office. I actually shared office space with other USDA agriculture inspectors who worked customs at San Francisco International Airport to intercept illegal or diseased plants, fruits, and vegetables from entering the U.S. via cargo or in foreign luggage.
The break-room was part of the lab they used to identify pests and disease on plants, fruits, and vegetables. The FBI agents were very “macho” and talkative and immediately engaged the plant inspectors in conversation, explaining the situation. I listened intently as I sat shaking at my desk. Then one of the agents said, “What are we going to do with Doc in the crossfire?”
I don’t even recall what the other agent said. At that point I went into a surreal state of numbed senses. I realized I was going to die in a small, dingy USDA office at SFO. Fortunately, the kingpin didn’t show. The agents were sure he was somehow alerted and decided to leave. Unfortunately, it wasn’t time for me to close and I would be here alone if he came. That was not their concern. They missed their guy, so they left.
I performed all of my other duties so I would not have to go back to the office for days and closed early. It took a month for me to relax at the office thinking that the drug lord might show up at any time. He never showed or called again.
I hope you enjoyed this vacation from veterinary medicine and nutrition. Next week I will return to pet related issues and save some of my other great stories for future posts.
Dr. Ken Tudor