When it comes to hiding exotic animals, wildlife officials say they've seen it all. From tigers stuffed in a duffel bag to cobras concealed in a potato chip can, animal smugglers have become more imaginative when sneaking dangerous creatures from the wilderness to a backyard near you.
In California, it's illegal to own exotic animals without a permit from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). But a three-month investigation by NBC Bay Area and NBC4 LA found that those laws do little to deter smugglers from making billions of dollars, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents, by selling everything from chimps to tigers as exotic pets.
Born Free USA President Will Travers has dedicated his life to protecting endangered species and reducing the number of wild animals held in captivity.
"Part of the issue is that we just don't know the scale of what is going on across the United States in terms of exotic animals [held captive] as companion animals," Travers told NBC Bay Area.
"I would estimate that it runs into hundreds of thousands if not millions of individual animals when you take into account reptiles, snakes, primates, birds, mammals and everything in between," Travers said.
THE FRONT LINES
To get an idea of just how big the smuggling problem really is, NBC Bay Area and NBC4 LA spent time with agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife as they inspected packages and luggage entering the country at the border and at Los Angeles International Airport.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Resident Agent in Charge and exotic animal expert Erin Dean said that while her team of inspectors serves an important function as the first line of defense, their resources to intercept dangerous animals are stretched thin.
"When I started with this agency 27 years ago, we had the same number of officers that we do now," Dean said.
Once the animals are successfully smuggled into the U.S., laws about owning or possessing them vary from state to state.
California residents must obtain a restricted species permit in order to own an exotic animal or face possible jail time. Since 2013, California's Department of Fish and Wildlife cited 73 people for illegally possessing wild animals.
For those who want to obtain a permit to exhibit exotic animals, residents must prove to the state they have enough space and training to properly care for the animal.
Our analysis of permits issued by the state shows 1,679 different exotic species held in captivity in the Golden State, excluding zoos, museums, and education facilities.
Among those exotic species: 24 leopards, 20 tigers, 59 vipers, 21 cobras and 22 American alligators.
Other states such as Florida, Texas, and Nevada have few to no restrictions that prevent residents from owning exotic animals as pets.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
When all those tiger cubs, elephants and other big cats grow up and become more dangerous, they often become a problem for owners ill-equipped to handle wild animals. Ed Stewart with Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) runs a sanctuary devoted to caring for animals that were originally kept as pets or attractions at roadside zoos.
"Everybody who works here is sick every time you hear about another litter of cubs being born somewhere that there's no long term plan for them," Stewart told NBC Bay Area. "People can't believe what a big problem it is. I mean there are 7,000 tigers in people's backyards in the United States ... and there are only 4,000 in the wild. There are more pet tigers in the United States than there are wild tigers in the rest of the world."
With tigers, leopards, and bears all sharing the same space, Stewart believes his facility is nearly at capacity, just like many other sanctuaries throughout the country. He is now calling on Congress to step in and make it illegal across the country for anyone to keep an exotic animal in their home.