Not far from Miami International Airport, there's a little pink house where one man lives with 24 pigeons. Adrian Acosta-Gonzalez is a 37-year-old, Cuban-born landscaper with bronze skin and good bone structure. He slides open a birdcage in his back yard and snaps his fingers twice.
Out hops a plump pigeon named Verde, who tilts her head in the manner of an obedient dog. Acosta gives a low whistle and -- on cue -- she jumps from a plank, flies in a perfect circle, and squeezes back into her cage.
Acosta has a bashful grin. "I train them from the time they're babies," he rasps in Spanish. "I love everything about birds. I don't know why; it's just in my blood."
Six days earlier, his bird obsession got him into some trouble. Just after 10 a.m. April 6, investigators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staked out a canal east of Krome Avenue in Homestead. They'd been tipped off: Men were trapping migratory songbirds there and then selling them illegally. Wildlife cops aimed to put a dent in the exotic pet trade.
Officers found Acosta near the canal in a black Toyota Corolla, filled with bird traps. Inside were seven blue and candy-red birds called painted buntings, according to police reports. No bigger than a Christmas tree ornament, the pretty little things go for about $100 on the black market. Selling them is a federal offense; the buntings suffer from habitat loss.
Cops released the creatures and charged Acosta with a misdemeanor. He faces fines and possible jail time. (In February 2001, Acosta was arrested for possessing a credit card that wasn't his. The case was later dropped.)
"These birds do not belong in captivity; they belong in their natural habitats," FWC Lt. Jay Marvin says. Three more men were charged with the same crime two weeks ago.
Acosta contends it was a hobby, that he didn't know trapping was illegal and never intended to sell the birds. "I just like to hear them sing in the morning," he shrugs. Back in Cuba, catching and breeding them was no big deal.
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He'll go to court in a few weeks, but the whole thing makes him think. There are too many weird rules in this country, he says. "I came to the United States because I wanted to be free. But it's just like communism here -- only with food."