Gorilla Warfare

Vilified by animal protectionists, indicted for smuggling, praised by the feds. Matthew Block surprised everyone. Maybe even himself.

Then for a while the public uproar died down. Kehoe had agreed to give the defense plenty of time to prepare for a trial. A federal grand jury convened to study information regarding the Bangkok Six case that Block had passed on to prosecutors as part of their September plea agreement. Block, who with his wife and two small children was still suffering posthurricane displacement, had also received a note threatening his life, which Metro-Dade police investigated. But Block probably didn't have much time to worry about such matters. Immediately following Judge Kehoe's rejection of his plea, he became very busy as an undercover informant for the federal government. In the next month and a half, he played the pivotal role -- acting in tandem with the senior resident agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Miami, Jorge Enrique Pic centsn -- in two major busts.

First was the Clement Solano sting. In mid-December, Block and Pic centsn traveled up to Elkton, just west of St. Augustine, to meet with Solano, a cordial bird dealer and breeder with an aviary in a big green barn. Block and Pic centsn claim Solano called Block, looking to find a buyer for several pairs of rare cockatoos that had recently hatched from eggs allegedly smuggled from Australia, a country that bans virtually all wildlife exports. Solano's lawyer, Richard Nichols of Jacksonville, maintains that Block or someone working with him contacted Solano looking for birds, not the other way around, and that Solano had readily offered them, believing his merchandise was legal.

Either way, Solano and Block wound up handcuffed together in Solano's kitchen. As the purported buyers of the cockatoos, Block and Pic centsn visited Solano a second time on December 22 and had accompanied him to his home near the aviary, where they discussed prices at the kitchen table. Solano was offering ten birds for almost $85,000. He didn't get his money. Pic centsn cut off discussion by pulling out a badge and announcing he was arresting both Solano and Block. Several hours later, says Solano's lawyer, the bird dealer was aghast to learn Block's "arrest" was a sham. Solano faces trial in June for violating U.S. and Australian laws against wildlife trafficking. In addition, Fish and Wildlife agents seized 23 exotic birds from Solano's property.

Two weeks later Block says he got another call, this time from Mexico. Eduardo Berges, a primate importer, allegedly advised Block that the director of zoos and parks for the state of Mexico was looking for a gorilla. The gorilla at the large Zacongo Zoo in the city of Toluca, had died and officials were anxious to replace the endangered animal. Did Block know of an available gorilla? Block, already tape-recording the conversation, thought he could find one. The next day he called back Berges to say he'd located a gorilla and several baby orangutans to boot. For the next few weeks events as outlined in a later criminal complaint unfolded much like a third-rate detective story.

Trade in gorillas, as it is in orangutans, chimpanzees, and other endangered primates, is banned by U.S. and international laws in all but exceptional cases. Those cases usually involve strictly monitored cooperative breeding programs among zoos. "Professionally operated zoos working with endangered species have a system of stud books and international inventory systems and species coordinators," explains Dan Wharton, a curator at New York's International Wildlife Conservation Park, commonly known as the Bronx Zoo. "So we have several layers of understanding of every single animal of a species and where they are. A smuggled animal would stick out like a sore thumb." Wharton is species coordinator for the gorilla breeding programs approved by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA), which accredits zoos in the Western Hemisphere. The Zacongo Zoo is neither accredited by the AAZPA nor a participant in any AAZPA-sanctioned breeding plan. That doesn't necessarily mean the Zacongo Zoo is substandard, or that it would have been impossible for the zoo to import a gorilla legally, Wharton and other wildlife experts say, but it would certainly make it more difficult.

Victor Bernal, the Mexican state zoos and parks director who was looking for a gorilla, says he is well versed in the intricate system of inventories described by Wharton, and he believed he was working within it. A tall man with conservatively cut gray hair, Bernal is a member of several zoological and conservation associations, and the Zacongo Zoo is a legitimate park, affiliated with the Association of Latin American Zoological Parks and Aquariums, of which Bernal is president, according to his Miami attorney, Donald Bierman.

On January 12, Bernal, Eduardo Berges, and Berges's business partner, Jose Luis Alcerreca, flew to Miami from Mexico City to meet with Block. Fish and Wildlife agent Jorge Enrique Pic centsn made another appearance, this time posing as the owner of several primates that had been bestowed on him "in payment of a prior debt," according to court documents. Pic centsn assured Bernal he had the perfect gorilla for him and more.

The next day Block and Pic centsn took the three Mexicans to Parrot Jungle to inspect several orangutans and a chimpanzee. The expedition was prearranged with long-time Block associate Bern Levine, an animal breeder and part-owner of Parrot Jungle, where he keeps a baby chimp and a few infant orangutans. That same evening Metrozoo's head curator, Bill Zeigler, met Block, Pic centsn, and the Mexicans at the front gate after the zoo had officially closed for the day.

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