During a search of a Staten Island garage last year, federal agents made a disturbing find: Among packages of smoked fish and clothing they discovered 33 pieces of African bushmeat, including the arm of a primate and pieces of a small rodent known as a cane rat.
Now the garage owner, a Liberian immigrant named Mamie Jefferson, 39, finds herself a defendant in what her attorney believes is one of the first cases in New York, and perhaps the country, that involves charges of bushmeat smuggling.
The case pits federal officials who believe bushmeat poses health concerns against some West African immigrants here who say the eating of cooked flesh of wild animals is a sacred act that is worthy of protection under federal religious-protection law.
Federal agents began to focus on Jefferson, also known by the surname of Manneh, after they uncovered bushmeat in January 2006 during an inspection at Kennedy Airport of boxes addressed to her. The airport search uncovered primate parts hidden in a legal shipment of dried fish from Africa, court records stated. After the airport search, agents visited Jefferson at her Staten Island home, where she consented to the search of her garage. Jefferson legally sells the fish within her West African community on Staten Island, said Jan Rostal, the federal defender representing Jefferson.
In an unrelated case, Jefferson is serving a 2-year term in state prison for trying to run over on Staten Island last year a woman she suspected of being her husband’s girlfriend, prosecutors said. As a result, her husband is taking care of the children – nine of Jefferson’s and two young relatives.
“The entire family and the babies miss her a lot and want her home,” said her husband, Zanger Jefferson, 40.
As she serves her state sentence, Jefferson is committed to fighting the federal charges. On Friday, her attorney filed papers in the federal case seeking to dismiss the charges.
U.S. officials say the importation of bushmeat, particularly the cane rat, could expose the public to diseases such as monkeypox, a viral infection that causes symptoms similar to smallpox. Globally, the trade in bushmeat is an environmental concern: Conservationists believe the trade is endangering many African animals – especially monkeys and other primates – that already are viewed as threatened.
Federal officials aren’t sure how large the market is for bushmeat in New York or elsewhere. During an interview with federal agents, according to court records, Jefferson said she had heard that the meat, which is usually smoked, had been sold in a local African market on Staten Island. Popular types of bushmeat include the flesh of monkeys, apes and bats, as well as the cane rats.
Recent statistics provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show occasional seizures of suspected bushmeat in the New York area and at other ports of entry such as Hawaii and Los Angeles.
“It is hard to find,” said a wildlife service agent who operates out of Valley Stream. Much of what is confiscated at Kennedy Airport is found in hand luggage of travelers from overseas. “The big stuff is shipped in containers,” the agent said. “Nobody has the staff to look at that.”
Since 2000, agents have made sporadic seizures of what they term “possible” bushmeat in New York. Usually the items have been identified as primates, antelope, goat and cane rat from Ghana, according to the data.
Biologist Justin Brashares of the University of California at Berkeley, has developed a network of sources on bushmeat. The reports indicate that about 1,000 pounds of bushmeat, which is usually smoked before it is shipped from Africa, makes its way each month into West African ethnic markets in New York City. Nationwide, about 15,000 pounds of bushmeat come into the country each month, he said.
Jefferson’s case is promising to turn into a test for the little known federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 statute designed to protect groups from prosecution for using controlled substances as part of religious services. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court negated an investigation of a small Brazilian sect in New Mexico for using a psychotropic plant that was made into a tea known as hoasca. The beverage, which is hallucinogenic, contains dimethyltryptamine, which is on the federal list of controlled substances, also known as Schedule One.
“If the Supreme Court says these folks have the right to use a Schedule One drug in a religious way, why can’t these Africans use this bushmeat in a similar religious way?” Rostal, Jefferson’s attorney, asked in an interview. Rostal sees the use of bushmeat in the West African immigrant communities as having a religious significance that escapes many Westerners.
A spiritual meal
A number of Jefferson’s fellow congregants at an African church in the Stapleton section of Staten Island, none of whom want to be identified because of concerns about immigration repercussions if they go public, apparently agree. They have given Rostal an affidavit to explain the spiritual importance of bushmeat.
“Bushmeat is sacred to us because it is the free, wild animals of our homeland, and these animals are gifts from God and filled with spiritual power,” the congregants said. “When we eat the bushmeat, we get closer to God and we take in that spiritual power to our bodies.”
But federal officials and some health experts say the wild African meats can harbor disease. Some studies, investigators said in court papers, have linked bushmeat to HIV, SARS and Lassa fever, a viral disease passed by a small rodent. Another concern is that Ebola, a severe and often fatal viral infection, is harbored in some monkeys.
While health experts agree there is a risk of infection from bushmeat, some of them believe the danger is low, particularly because the vast majority of the product is smoked. A 2005 report by a British government advisory committee concluded that, among immigrants in the British Isles, the risk of disease was “extremely low” from ingesting smoked bushmeat cooked in “traditional” ways – such as by stewing for about two hours.
The bigger risk of illness, the British study concluded, was from contamination in the kitchen of other foods that come in contact with “disease organisms that may be present on the bushmeat prior to cooking.” The study also noted that food handlers could be sickened when they handle a carcass contaminated with the microorganism that transmits monkeypox.
In a recently filed legal brief to dismiss the government’s indictment, Rostal said that if an ecologically sensitive method of harvesting African bushmeat could be developed, then the flesh could be inspected here like other imported meats. In any event, the amounts of bushmeat would remain small, reflecting their use in religious celebrations, she said.
“It is not about having it sold in supermarkets,” Rostal said.
Sidebar: THE ANIMALS AT STAKE
SUSPECTED BUSHMEAT ANIMALS SEIZED DURING THE YEARS BY FEDERAL AGENTS
Description: Small rodents also known as grass cutters, or cutting grass. They are widely valued as bushmeat in parts of West and Central Africa. Their meat is tender and can be of high protein and low fat content. In
some localities they are considered a pest.
Habitat: Africa, south of the Sahara
Description: A small antelope species with an arched body where the front legs are a little shorter than the hind legs. Their body shape allows them to duck into thickets for cover. Their name comes from the Afrikaans word for “diver.”
Habitat: Sub-Sahara Africa
Description: Wild African pigs that can weigh up to 300 pounds. They have two pairs of curved tusks in the mouth, which are used to defend against predators. They have poor eyesight
but a good sense of smell. The tusks give a fearsome appearance.
Habitat: African grasslands
Description: Medium-sized primates, also known as the Vervet monkeys, they can weigh about 10 pounds. They live in large groups that can number as many as 80. They spend much of the day on the ground but stay in trees at night.
Habitat: Sub-Sahara Africa, as well as the Caribbean Islands of Barbados and St. Kitts.