A Visit to The Dead Tiger Warehouse
The photo that will bring me to the dead tiger warehouse pops up on my Instagram feed while I’m on my lunch break. In the photo a tiger skin rug hangs off the wall next to a bed upholstered in zebra skin. On the nightstand is a lamp made of zebra hooves. In front of the tiger skin, a mannequin holds a leash connected to a stuffed ocelot.
The photo’s description tells me that it’s part of a display put on by US Fish and Wildlife showcasing items made out of illegally poached animals. After being confiscated by US Customs, they’re sent to be cataloged and stored at the Eagle Repository in Denver, Colorado.
I nod and scroll to the next picture. Then it hits me.
Wait a minute…I live in Denver.
I only relocated five months ago, so the idea is still new. Burrito in hand, I Google the contact number on their website and press my thumb onto the phone icon. The Eagle Repository’s cheery receptionist picks up on the third ring and couldn’t be happier that I’ve taken an interest.
“Great!” She exclaims ‘‘We’d love to have you come and tour the facility. How many in your group?”
A polite “Oh” is the reply.
It turns out you need to be a part of a school or some other group to schedule a tour. As a government agency, they just don’t have the resources for random people to come gape at sad dead things on any day of the week. However, they do have a tour open to the public twice a year, where they will show you the display room from the National Geographic photo as well as the eagle repository, before finishing with a walk through the warehouse of intercepted animal products. The next tour is a month away. I put my name on the list and request the day off work.
I tell my coworkers and friends about it in the weeks leading up and show them the photo. They’re confused by my enthusiasm, which I always have a hard time explaining. The tour’s not going to be educational. I already don’t have a great view of humanity, so it’s not as though my eyes will be any more opened by seeing a bunch of endangered species killed for profit all in one place. Partly it’s morbid curiosity. The chance to see something dark and real that most people never get to experience. Partly it’s a warped, guilt-driven sense of responsibility. The same reason I watch documentaries about our oceans of plastic and disappearing glaciers, and read every news article about yet another species bordering on extinction. It doesn’t make my life happier or do anything to change the situation. I just feel it’s wrong not to witness it.
Also, I assume from the name “Eagle Repository” that I’ll get to see some injured eagles being rehabilitated, which is pretty awesome. It should be an uplifting counterweight to the rest of the tour.
The Eagle Repository is a beige warehouse located on the site of a former chemical weapons facility. Now known as the Arsenal Wildlife Preserve, bison, mule deer, and elk roam the 16,000 acres of grassland with Denver’s skyscrapers in the distance.
On May 20th at 2PM, the public tour I’d waited all month for begins.
On May 20th at 2:15PM, I arrive dripping sweat from my eighteen mile bike ride out there because I do not plan well.
“Am I too late for the tour?” I gasp at the cheery twenty-three year-old at the front desk.
“Nope” she says brightly, pointing to her right, where the tour group stands seven feet away in a hallway.
“Cool. Can I go into this room still?” I reply, pointing to the room displaying all types of once-animate items. It’s the one from National Geographic’s Instagram feed that brought me all the way out here on a sunny Friday. After building it up in my mind for weeks, I pray I’m not too late to see it.
“Yeah, sure…” She’s clearly confused why I’m asking for permission to walk into the open alcove to my right. There’s no door, or turnstile, or even a velvet rope stopping me. I am a little brain dead from racing my bike over there. Denver gets real hot in May.
The display room is the unabridged version of the Instragram photo, which doesn’t make it any easier to see. A stuffed polar bear stalks non-existant prey beneath halogen lights.
Various skulls, jaws, and stuffed bodies are arranged across long tables covered with skins. There’s a map of Africa with each country a different species of animal fur. A lion’s skin is draped flat over a table, the mouth open in silence with no lungs or throat to roar.
There’s a tropical souvenier that’s just a decapitated sea turtle’s head on a plaque frowning above the word “Cuba.”
A glass coffee table made of elephant skin with the severed foot as its base.
And numerous other decorations for a home that would make me question the sanity of the owner.
Satisfied that I’ve experienced the worst, I join the tour group in the hallway. I’m the youngest person there by a solid decade and a couple solid decades away from the oldest, who’s pushing his oxygen tank ahead of him alongside his wife. A middle-aged man in a camo baseball hat holds the hand of a blonde woman in a pink sweater, and another couple are clearly on one particularly disturbing stop of their cross country RV drive. We’re a collection of people who have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon than visit a warehouse of rare dead animals. I’m also the only single person there, which gives me hope. Maybe someday I too will meet someone as screwed up as me for wanting to be here.
Our guide, a short brunette who’s tan uniform’s crisp creases warp over her pregnant belly, is in the middle of describing the service the Eagle Repository provides. Because I signed up for the tour, then as usual read nothing about what I was about to do, I had thought that this was a place where they rehabilitated hurt eagles. And that maybe one would become my friend, or that we’d nod to each other with a mutual respect while it got its majestic wing patched up so it could return to the skies.
Instead, through the plate glass, the tour group watches a bored looking technician in a full body smock and blue latex gloves examining a stiff corpse with bloody dent in its skull the size of a golf ball.
The technician, who’s round glasses and brushed back hair makes him look like the villain’s accountant in a 90’s action film, spreads out the eagle’s wings and tail before running each feather between his gloved fingers.
Our guide explains how they will first examine the wings and feathers for damage, and will then mix and match to create a complete set for the Native American tribes that officially request them for use in rituals. This program strikes a balance between sensitivity to the First Nations’ religious practices and cutting down on eagle poaching.
I completely agree with the government providing this service. It marries conservation with respect for religious observance when the two could easily be at odds.
Of course, agreeing with this government program doesn’t make it easier to watch as the technician picks up a pair of branch cutters, lops off the eagle’s wings at the base, and then shears through the tail feathers. Nor does it soften the impact as he breaks both the eagle’s legs so it slides neatly into a paper bag, which he then dumps into a trash can.
A custodian with a comically large wet-dry vac strapped to his back wanders around in the back of the sterile room sucking up all of the white down tumbling around the metal examination tables like cottonwood seeds. Meanwhile, the technician enters data into a computer covered by a lint-free cloth, and I feel that deep inside, my patriotism just got its little heart broke.
An impressive eagle feather headdress hangs in a glass case at the end of the hallway, where we continue the tour into the warehouse. No photos are allowed from this point on unless authorized.
We pass through a long room filled with stacked cardboard boxes that approach the ceiling. One tower has “Coral” written in Sharpie on every box. This is when I start to realize that I’m in for something much more intense than I expected.
The main room of the warehouse consists of metal shelving units alphabetized by animal. The laminated sign on the first row is categorized from Armadillos through Beetles, Bears, and Boars, with a special section for Kangaroo Parts. An overworked employee checks a clipboard as she pushes her cart through the rows of shelving units. She’s busy with a massive reorganization effort of the 1.4 million separate items in the warehouse.
Opposite the shelves, some contraband items stand alone along the wall. This is where our guide introduces us to the “Big Three” poaching targets: elephants, tigers, and rhinos.
The first of the “Big Three” is the first inside the warehouse. Nine foot ivory tusks criss-cross above an umbrella stand made from an elephant’s foot and a painting of a hunter on a rough grey hide. We’re told that these enormous tusks were taken off a forty-five year-old bull elephant, and that ones of this size are becoming rarer and rarer as elephants seldom survive that long in the wild.
Our tour guide then introduces us to the section of the Eagle Repository most photographed by magazines, which showcases the second of the “Big Three” poaching targets. It’s an image that didn’t pop up on my National Geographic Instagram feed: A metal shelf filled with stuffed tiger heads.
Without prior warning, it’s shocking. Rows of preserved heads resting atop cushions of their own folded skin. Somehow worse, these were not taxidermied well. Many looked like the result of a three year-old describing a tiger to a first year art student who’d never seen one before. It’s painful to see such a regal, near-mythical creature dead, but it’s insulting that all its dignity was stripped away in the process. No sense of the power and grace of this apex predator remains. It’s just dead skin stretched over a comically lumpy skull, propped open in a roar by plastic jaws with a curling tongue. It’s a waste. The tiger and the money the poacher got for it both gone forever. The heads of cheetahs, jaguars, and other big cats, mostly covered by plastic bags, fill out the rest of the row.
After that, the shelving units contents take on a predictability. Shellacked turtle shells that had no chance of protecting their inhabitants from harm. Stuffed birds perched on fiberglass rocks and plants, forever displaying their vibrant plumage to no one. Ostentatious boots lined with tiger or zebra skin, and children’s boots made of cobra skin. Alligator, crocodile, and cayman corpses either stuffed or turned into cartoonish accessories. It’s 1.4 million separate items. It’s a lot.
Halfway down, I notice Camo Baseball Cap start rifling through a box filled with dried seahorses. I’m about to say something before noticing that other people are running their hands over pieces as well. The guide doesn’t react to it. I don’t know the protocol and start to wonder. This isn’t a museum, they’re not showroom items, and they’re not for resale. Does it matter if they get damaged? I pick up one the seahorses. They’re stiff to the touch like ceramic. I run my fingers through the fur of a stuffed tiger and a stuffed black bear. Beneath the impossibly soft hair is as cold and hard as plaster. I stop touching things after that.
Our guide next pauses the tour at a black plastic packing crate filled with crushed ivory. Some of the beige chips show fragments of ink or paint. Our guide explains that in 2013 the Eagle Repository publically fed all the elephant ivory sculptures, carvings, and other pieces in their warehouse through an industrial crusher. This was to demonstrate that no matter how intricate the artwork of each piece, it was worthless compared to these irreplaceable creature’s lives.
The black packing crate is about four foot square by four foot deep. It’s one of the seven they filled with ivory fragments. I start to calculate how many elephants that represented before giving up. I don’t really want to know right now.
The tour continues on before stopping at two large wooden shipping crates at the end of the warehouse. Each open crate contains the head of a rhino, the last of the “Big Three” animals on the tour.
I take a long time here. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a rhino, living or dead. From the safe distance afforded by a zoo enclosure fence, it’s easy to forget how impossibly gargantuan they are. Their size is more befitting a battle tank than a comically nearsighted herbivore. One rhino was killed by an American during a legal hunt in Africa and shipped back as a trophy. However, somewhere in transit a thief sawed off the horn and replaced it with a fake. It was hastily done. Glue-filled cracks spread from the base of the horn into the surrounding grey hide. Subtlety wasn’t foremost on the thief’s mind. Rhino horns like this one sell for $60,000 per kilogram and an adult’s horn will usually net between $120,000 and $180,000. The decapitated head was confistated from its owner at Customs and sent to the Eagle Repository because any animal trophy you import legally must be intact to prove it wasn’t murdered for profit. The rhino head in the second crate, equally behemoth, comes from murkier origins.
According to our guide, rhino poaching has only gotten worse now that international terrorist organizations have moved into the trade. It’s as lucrative as drug trafficking without the same danger or punishments. Camo Ballcap gets real animated when he hears this. Our guide politely nods along to the passionate opening of his rant about how we have to put boots on the ground in Africa to get these terrorist scumbags before cutting him off to move on with the tour.
In response to the increased poaching over the years, many wildlife preserves have resorted to sedating the rhinos and surgically removing their horns. In theory, this also removes the poacher’s motivation to hunt them. The elderly man with the oxygen tank asks whether this practice has worked. Our tour guide responds that while it works sometimes to save the rhinos, other times poachers are so enraged after tracking the animal all night just to find it financially worthless that they shoot them anyway. So, overall, it saves the animal’s life more often than not. Staring at the the rhino heads inside their crates, two less of a rapidly dwindling population, I get the feeling that this sums up most of the tactics used by wildlife preservation organizations.
Part of me sympathizes with Camo Ballcap. You want to believe there’s a concerted, well-funded effort to end this environmental plunder. That these 1.4 million items were nabbed during covert sting operations in dusty warehouses where the traffickers are defeated by agents in massive action scenes involving machine guns and kung fu and Steven Segal. In reality, the agents working in this field are indeed brave. Some put their lives on the line in sting operations to nab these criminals. And yet, much like the rhino with the fake horn, the majority of it is confiscated simply due to minor infractions like improper labeling, or an error on the shipping manifest. A lot of the wildlife trade is being done semi-legally until the buyer or the seller gets a little too greedy and breaches the established import limit. A small percentage of the overall trade ends up here and a small percentage of the trafficker’s overall profits are lost. The amount that gets through unhindered for sale is incalculable, as is the revenue.
The metal slatted door of the loading dock rattles up and a beeping truck reverses in to unload more confiscated items for the warehouse. It seems as good a way as any to end the tour. On the way out, I glance in one of the stacked cardboard boxes nearest to the door. It’s filled to the top with strings of ivory beads. Each is carved into a skull, because that is how metaphors work. I hit my limit. Some things are too on the nose.
In a daze I pass through the hallway of the repository as another eagle hits the metal table with a unceremonious clang. It’s not as though I came here to change my worldview. I didn’t spend my life being a downer to my friends about the environment just to turn it around in a warehouse of endangered species killed for profit. However, even this small glimpse of the destruction is profound. It’s one thing to read that tiger populations have decreased worldwide by nearly 97,000 in a century. It’s another thing to see their misshapen heads on sterile metal shelves and know that this is the minority of the traffic that got intercepted. It’s this way for all of these preserved corpses that now reside silently in alphabetic rows on cold metal shelves in a drafty storage facility.
The receptionist greets me as I stand at the entrance to the display room, where a giraffe’s chest, neck, and head frame the doorway.
Filling up my waterbottle for the long ride home, I let out a dejected sigh.
“Tired?” The receptionist asks. She’d seen how sweaty I was when I biked in.
“No, it’s just…that warehouse.” I reply as water gurgles to the brim of my Nalgene. “It’s a lot to take in.”
She nods before returning to her paperwork.
“It’s just…” I pause.
There’s no point in saying it. She has as much control as I do over this slow motion car wreck as our ecosystem collides with an ever-expanding wall of humanity. Besides, she works here. Every day she sees the reality laid out in one place and sees people like me finishing the tour in exasperation. But I couldn’t just leave with the thought sitting inside me.
“…humans are monsters.”
“Yeah…” she replies. “We really are.”
If you’d like to read more of my writing, my book Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains is available on Amazon
[Note: The following contains graphic descriptions of warfare]medium.com