They call her the Lizard Lady. She can tell at a glance if a handbag is cobra or crocodile, python or plastic. Nor is she cowed by rawhide vs. Naugahyde, boa vs. bogus.
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspector at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, Carol Carson supervises the shipment of wild animals, checks fish bound for restaurants, sees that leather goods are properly imported and makes sure that endangered species or items made from them are not allowed into the country.If an item comes from an endangered species, such as the hawksbill turtle or white leopard, she doesn't monkey around. The item is confiscated, and the worst offenders can receive up to a year in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Some travelers who have their souvenirs taken away submit quietly. Others have "made me glad I had a customs inspector standing next to me and that he was armed," Carson said.
She rides herd on hunting trophies from an African safari being shipped to a taxidermist in Birmingham, Ala., rare monkeys being exchanged by zoos for breeding, and European salmon headed for some of the Southeast's finest restaurants.
For her territory - the Southeast with the exception of Miami - Carson inspects products ranging from Italy's smartest leather clothing and accessories to "cheap junk, tanned so badly it will start to smell in a few weeks."
A big day was the interception of 100 illegal elephant tusks. This day's haul, though, included cheap items sent from Nigeria to an address in the Atlanta suburb of College Park.
Seated on plastic trash bags spread on the floor of the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines freight terminal, Carson cataloged and counted a growing pile of purses, wallets and briefcases made of various reptile hides.
A glance told her whether it was cobra or monitor lizard. Some, however, weren't that easy. Her fingers probed the trim on a drawstring purse.
"It's fake," she finally said, grinning. "It's trimmed in fake alligator." Fake is legal.
But she confiscated 239 items that didn't have proper permits or were made from monitor lizards, whose skins cannot be brought into the United States under the Endangered Species Act.
The rest of the shipment was either cowhide items or African garments colored with cheap vegetable dye. The clothing was possibly illegal because of import quotas for textiles, but that was a matter for the Customs Service.
Buried in a second shipment of cloth items and bags of shredded grass were two 12-foot python hides, two cobra skins, two antelope hides, five snakeskin handbags, three pairs of lizard shoes and the skin of a civet, a catlike creature.
The bags of confiscated goods made a pile in the back of the van with a "Lizard Lady" plate on the front.
"The international mechanics at Delta tagged me with that name when I first got here," Carson said.