On her first day at work at Dulles, Latrice Hill opened up a suitcase and found a charred monkey.
It’s been pretty much like that every day since then.
The people who work in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at Dulles International Airport — seizing joints, ivory, dirt, live crabs, caches of Iranian jewelry, leopard skins, all manner of sausages and anything anyone could ever think to smuggle in — see the world tucked into this luggage arriving from overseas.
The favorite flavors people miss from home, the pets people can’t bear to leave behind, the scams they run, the souvenirs they can’t pass up, the drugs they hide in children’s juice boxes, the religious items they cherish. It’s all right there.
“Every day is like opening presents. Every day you find something really unusual,” said Kristi Currier, an agriculture specialist who leads a small, cheerful beagle around the luggage carousel to sniff out apples, pork and other threats.
These are jobs that mix the sheer futility of trying to screen for the tiniest traces of illegal substances as thousands of people and bags come gushing in and its ridiculous opposite: contraband that literally reaches out and bites them.
It has its dangers.
It has its banalities — the umpteenth time explaining why you have to throw out that orange, sir.
And it has lots and lots of weird stuff: ocelot belts, needles full of collagen, cocaine hidden in religious statues, and a suitcase with bloody sheets, chicken feathers and a dried hedgehog.
CBP officers are trying to enforce federal, state and local laws, said supervisor Christopher Downing.
They’re trying to keep bad guys out of the United States and screening for more nebulous dangers, such as diseases and threats to agriculture.
That’s why on Thursday agriculture specialist Hill took a large ostrich egg, emptied, polished and painted with songbirds, from a passenger arriving from South Africa. It could pose a risk of spreading avian flu. That’s why Currier said she is on guard against ruminants — a roast beef sandwich to you, perhaps, but, if it came from certain countries, it could be tainted with mad cow disease.
And that’s why passengers might have to undergo X-rays if they are suspected of smuggling drugs. In June, officers arrested a man from Nigeria who had three pounds of heroin in his belly, which would probably have killed him if the balloons had burst inside him.
The screening begins as soon as the suitcases start coming off the planes. On Thursday afternoon, a large German shepherd named Rex ran on the conveyor belt sniffing frantically at first-class passengers’ bags from an Air France flight, slaloming between or jumping on top of them in the search for drugs.
At a baggage carousel upstairs, a beagle named Thomas was snuffling at a large Louis Vuitton shopping bag. He had already found some fruit and five songbirds that a passenger had bought in Europe to remind him of home.
CBP officers and officers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wander through as people wait for their bags. That’s where wildlife inspector Kelly French once noticed someone carrying an unusual leather purse. The front flap was the head and tiny front paws of an African dwarf crocodile, which is endangered.
Most overseas passengers answer just a few questions when they arrive. But some people are pulled aside for further questioning and searches when something seems amiss with their documents or their travel plans.
Sometimes a smell gives a violation away. Officers have found a whole cooked crocodile, a monkey brain, a dead penguin, two elephant tails.
Sometimes it’s meat a passenger has shot, killed and smoked; sometimes the meat is still raw.
“A lot of things you really don’t want to touch,” Currier said. “Sometimes the bush meat has jumping maggots. We don’t want the maggots to get loose, so we have to catch all of them, have to round them all up.”
Downing has seen a lot in more than 25 years. There was the guy who came off an eight-hour flight unaware that a scorpion had ridden the entire way on his hat. Just the other day, a man arriving from Amsterdam explained to an officer that the bag didn’t contain potato chips, no, no, it was hashish. He didn’t realize that it was illegal in the United States.
The weirdest find occurred when he worked at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport: shrunken heads. A box was opened, and 20 tiny little human heads were inside. “Every day, you just don’t know,” Downing said.
At Dulles on Thursday, officers searched for dates in a suitcase from Saudi Arabia, seized tamarind from India and pork rinds from the Philippines. The food would all be burnt to a crisp in the 2,500- to 3,000-degree heat of an incinerator.
Many of the seized items are destroyed immediately; some are locked in a massive vault in Sterling to be used as evidence or auctioned off. Some are given to researchers or to zoos. Officers opened sacks of lentils, coriander and rice. They sifted through the grains of rice, searching for signs of a khapra beetle, a small but incredibly destructive little bug.
The lines backed up as weary travelers waited, small children cried and a young man from Normandy asked why on Earth they were taking his pate.
At any moment, they might find a stash of tens of thousands of dollars or be startled by another monkey. But for the moment, at least, they were trying to find a beetle in a rice sack.