You see it on the news and read about it on social media, but do you really know what it is? You might think you do. I know I did ... until one day I came face to face with the reality of wildlife trafficking.
This day was so intense that it has taken me two years to share my story. I thought about telling my story numerous times, but to be perfectly honest, it is a painful story to tell. Not many things stop me in my tracks, but this did. In fact, the experience literally took my breath away. I had to step back and remind myself to breath, remind myself that this was reality and that what I was seeing was meant to educate people about wildlife crime.
On February 17, 2013 my son and I were attending an event at the San Diego Zoo called Discovery Days: Cool Cats. There were various booths set up for people to get information and learn more about what else, cats. Pet stores, animal shelters, organizations where you could adopt endangered cats, an artist sketching pictures of cool cats, and then we saw it. The booth that stopped my heart for a split second.
A booth from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This was not an ordinary booth. This booth was specifically set up with one thing in mind.
I can still picture it clear as can be. It is an image that will never leave my mind. Fur coats hanging in the background. A female lion cub in a sitting position to the left. Full body skins of leopards, ocelots, jaguars, and other small cats to the right. Then there was the face, the face that was looking at me, the face that was attached to the skin and fur of a young tiger.
The tears began to flow and I had to walk away. We both did. It was too much to take in.
I was not prepared for what I was seeing, or for how I was feeling.
Each item on display had a tag attached to it that read "These items are all genuine animal products seized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service". I was looking at real animals that had been killed for their fur and body parts. This was the reality of wildlife crime. Yes, the fur was beautiful. However, I would have much rather seen it on a live animal. Was the fur soft? I don't know, because I didn't touch it. I wanted to know what a tiger felt like, I still do, but I couldn't touch this one. It was just too sad.
Many people were petting the skins, like they were pets or something. Some even made jokes. I chose not to engage in their uneducated conversations and chose rather to talk with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife officer that was there. I chose to educate myself more about wildlife trafficking. The sadness and pain didn't go away, but I did become more determined to do everything I possible could to stop wildlife crime.
This painful day is something that I will not forget. Nor will my son. It was a day that forever changed us and reminds us to keep fighting. This Tuesday, March 3, 2015 is World Wildlife Day - a day to create awareness and work toward a future where people and wildlife can coexist.
I chose to share my story this year in hopes of getting more people to stand up against organized wildlife crime. Please join me and thousands of others by using #SeriousAboutWildlifeCrime on your social media channels this week. Alone it is an uphill battle, but together we can save these animals and put an end to wildlife crime.