VALLEY PARK, Mo. (KSDK) - Walter Crawford is the founder and longtime executive director of the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park. His life is devoted to saving birds and other animals.
In 1991, he matched wits with accused animal smuggler Jagdeshwar Sadhu, described by Crawford as "the John Gotti of the Caribbean".
"Could I have been killed?" Crawford asked rhetorically. "Yeah, I guess so. Nobody knew where I was or who I was with."
Crawford said in the 1990's, the island of Grenada was a major staging area for wildlife smuggling and the illegal pet market.
"For every bird that made it to the United States live and sold to somebody for a pet, nine others died," Crawford said. "It's pretty barbaric the way a lot of these animals are treated. The idea was if six of them died, who cares? We'll go out and catch six more."
Sadhu was using a former zoo in Grenada to house the hundreds of animals at a time before shipping them to buyers by boat, sometimes to the United States. Crawford learned of the illegal animal smuggling and went undercover pretending to be a buyer to gain Sadhu's trust.
"We had portrayed to him that we were going to help him," Crawford said. "Once he figured out what was going on we had to watch our back."
With the help of the Grenadan government, hundreds of animals, including birds, snakes, tortoises, and monkeys, were turned over to Crawford, whose crew of 20 had been waiting patiently to rescue the animals. Then Fed Ex came to the rescue, offering the use of a 727 jet to fly the animals to the U.S., although turning a jet into a supersonic Noah's ark made the shipping company nervous.
Crawford gained the confidence of Fed Ex. "Here's what we're going to do. Birds here, snakes here, monkeys here, we kind of split them up," said Crawford.
One result of Crawford's action is that Grenada passed a law banning the export of animals without a permit. But wildlife smuggling has not gone away and remains an international problem. At the time, Crawford says it was worth the risk. Of the hundreds of rescued animals, Crawford said only one didn't survive the trip. "We placed most of them in breeding institutions and zoos around the United States. Would I do it again today? I don't know."