Brad Fitzpatrick

"We've got skinks. A lot of different skinks," notes Mike Osborn, an inspector with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Los Angeles. It is a small shipment: about 1,000 gecko-like lizards from Egypt, packed in what appears to be squirmy pillowcases thumb-tacked to the sides of thin wooden crates. Osborn methodically opens the sacks to check whether they indeed hold skinks as it says on the manifest. They do: 25, 50, 75 per bag.

Far from the familiar bustle of LAX's passenger terminals, in a sprawling complex of air cargo warehouses, Osborn is one of 11 USFWS inspectors who meet and greet millions of wildlife travelers who arrive in southern California each week. Every now and again, one tries to make a break for it, like the legendary baby monitor lizard that skittered off in the direction of the nearby Sheraton Hotel one day. It made...

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