MUGGLING ANIMALS TO FREEDOM
The exotic animal market of Ho Chi Minh City. The low-slung building opened like a gaping maw, gloomy and uninviting.
Inside, the corrugated walls reverberating with the din of bird and beast, the joyful song of bulbuls and the mew of a newborn kitten being dropped into the cage of a half-grown civet. Dried bear galls hung from suction cups beside bottles of coiled serpents drowned in whiskey. Glass display cases offered flying lizards stiffened like plywood kites and bags of animal parts - teeth, bones, bits of skin and ears and innards, guaranteed to cure every ill from arthritis to impotence.
The shrill, heart-rending cry of an eagle stopped me in my tracks. I crouched beside the cage. A crested serpent eagle stared back at me with unblinking yellow eyes. Its tail feathers had long since worn away from continual contact with the mesh floor and its wings were torn and tattered. It cried again, a whistle so piercing that I was sure it could be heard across Saigon. I backed away from the impossible sight.
In a corner near a cobra's cage four men in business suits and shiny black shoes sat around a table, fingering miniature goblets. The stall owner held a pitcher that filled slowly with blood draining from the long, hose-like body of a decapitated snake. He stirred in a measure of rice whiskey and poured. The men drank and smacked their lips.
I heard a mewing sound and I turned to see a tiny leopard kitten, a soft bundle of fluffy fur the size of a softball. A baby macaque rode on its back and twisted its ears playfully. I watched the monkey dismount and wrap its wiry arms around the little cub in a huddle of mutual, newborn need.
"How much?" I asked the owner and indicated the leopard cub.
She looked at me with disinterest. Foreigners made poor customers, neither valuing the animals for their medicinal qualities nor risking customs by transporting them home. She shrugged. "One thousand dollars."
I put a finger through the wire mesh. Both infants ignored me, preferring their own company. It was just as well - I had no way of returning such a small charge to it wild home and I, too, would be leaving one day.
"Five hundred!" she called at my back as I walked away. "I ship for you! Customs no problem!"