By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Born and reared in Miami, Block began his career when he was only thirteen years old by selling some tropical birds - macaws - for a friend. By the time he was in high school (the private Mesivta-Louis Merwitzer Senior High School on Alton Road in Miami Beach), his interest in brokering the sale of animals overcame his interest in academics, and he dropped out. But his subsequent success was as prodigious as he was precocious. Today he lives in comfort, and relative anonymity, in a walled South Dade home.
That matter of anonymity, however, has been as big a challenge to maintain as has survival and success in a business notorious for its ruthless competition. Besides having drawn the occasional attention of media worldwide, Block has been the target of partners and clients who have sued him in court; of conservationists, animal-rights activists, and government agencies who have accused him of mistreating the animals he deals with. He currently faces misdemeanor charges in Dade County Court for allegedly keeping 53 monkeys in unsanitary conditions at an unlicensed site. And thanks to a woman named Shirley McGreal, he is now embroiled in two controversies that could end forever the anonymity he says he desires.
McGreal is the chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League, a 13,000-member organization devoted to the conservation and protection of man's closest cousins in the animal kingdom. Among advocates for the rights of animals, McGreal is widely respected as a vigilant and fearless protagonist. Among people in Matthew Block's business, she is a pariah.
Block, in fact, is suing McGreal in Miami's federal court, charging that she has interfered with and damaged his efforts to conduct business. But of much greater concern and consternation to Block is McGreal's role in pushing the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate allegations that he was deeply involved in a complex - and illegal - animal-smuggling conspiracy that has since become an international cause celebre among animal protectionists.
In February of last year, three wooden crates arrived at the Bangkok airport from Singapore. According to shipping papers, they were bound for Yugoslavia, and from there to Moscow. Though the crates were stamped with the label "birds," inspectors heard unusual crying sounds coming from within. Thai authorities removed the crates from the cargo area where they had been sitting unattended, X-rayed them, and pried them open. Instead of birds, officials found six baby orangutans and two siamang gibbons. The animals were in horrible physical condition, some of them having been stored upside down, all of them deprived of food and water.
Orangutans, an endangered species found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, are highly intelligent and easily trainable apes. When young, they are especially affectionate and attractive, with large eyes and orange-brown fur that stands up as if charged with static electricity. Because of these appealing characteristics, and because of their rarity (only 20,000 are estimated to remain in the wild), orangutans are prized by collectors of all sorts - zoos and menageries, wealthy individuals who want them as exotic pets, and entertainment enterprises such as circuses and carnivals. In Taiwan, where the animals have gained extraordinary popularity and where, until recently, regulation has been lax, orangutans can even be seen in restaurants, nightclubs, and discos, on display for the amusement of patrons. (In the United States, where restrictions are enforced and legitimate demand is high, the price of a single orangutan can be as high as $50,000.)
Because they are an endangered species, orangutans are protected by provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a regulatory protocol signed by 111 nations (including the United States) that prohibits their export unless they have been born in captivity. Such worldwide concern for the primates' welfare, however, hasn't stopped the smugglers. They employ a variety of methods - ranging from fake papers to false labeling to secret compartments - in order to ship the animals, which usually are captured as babies in the jungle after their mothers have been killed.
The deplorable fate of the infant orangutans discovered at the Bangkok airport (three of them eventually died) ignited the fury of animal protectionists around the world. In response, Thai authorities confiscated the young apes. An intensive investigation was begun. Within a short time, Shirley McGreal and her International Primate Protection League (IPPL) were receiving detailed information about the results of that investigation.
An official of the German wildlife department provided McGreal with copies of shipping bills, faxed letters between alleged conspirators, and other documents, as well as an account of the smuggling operation that came to be known as the "Bangkok Six." (McGreal says she was offered the information because German officials respected the work of IPPL.) According to the account, the baby apes were captured in the jungles of Borneo and smuggled out of the country to Singapore, where they were picked up by a German citizen named Kurt Schafer, who then transported them to Bangkok. Schafer was then to ship the animals to Belgrade, Yugoslavia. From there they would be flown to Moscow, supposedly destined for a zoo. The two gibbons were meant as a reward to the Yugoslavian contacts for their help in the operation.