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Try to Buy a Gorilla, Get a Federal Agent in a Gorilla Suit

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In case any shady zoo officials are reading, this is an actual gorilla. She looks and acts quite different than a fed in a gorilla costume. In case any shady zoo officials are reading, this is an actual gorilla. She looks and acts quite different than a fed in a gorilla costume. PhotoXpress

Twenty-one years ago, federal agents conducted something that could either go down in history as something out of a movie. Or possibly something out of the Darwin Awards.

In 1993, American federal agents were tipped off by a Miami-area primate dealer that officials from a Mexican zoo were interested in purchasing a gorilla. Trafficking in endangered animals is against federal law and gorillas have been on the endangered species list since the list began. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, conducting the sting, showed the three Zoologico de Zacango officials around south Florida to see different primates.

Victor Bernal, 57 at the time, the director of zoos and parks for the interior State of Mexico, was the main target and was arrested in the sting. According to the agents, he was looking to pay $92,500 ($149,125 in 2014 dollars) for the animal. According to an Associated Press story on the incident, the Toluca zoo's gorilla had died and the powerful governor of the State of Mexico wanted a replacement quickly. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Gelber told the AP that the agents posing as wildlife dealers were upfront about the illegality of the action.

"We agreed to provide them with the animals with false permits," Gelber said at the time. "It was very clear that it's illegal to send these animals without proper documents and permits."

Endangered wildlife trafficking is a major crime throughout the world and respectable zoological institutions interested in acquiring or breeding animals do so through other zoos.

The sting eventually came down to the purchase point. Bernal needed a pilot and plane to fly back to Mexico and fake permits for the export of the gorilla.

Posing as wildelife dealers, a group of FWS agents brought Bernal and his colleagues to the Opa Locka airport. With the help of ZooMiami curator Ron Magill, the agents acquired a great ape transport cage and, seemingly, put a gorilla in the cage.

Only it wasn't a gorilla. It was a Fish and Wildlife employee in a gorilla suit purchased at a costume store.

According to the Chicago Tribune story on the incident, Bernal was a bit taken aback:

The suspect, a Mexican zoo chief, fell for the ruse. U.S. agents arrested him on charges of violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That was Surprise No. 1.

Surprise No. 2: The gorilla got out of the crate.

Mexican zoo chief Victor Bernal freaked out. He screamed. He ran. He even tried to jump off the plane where the crate was stored at Miami's Opa-locka Airport.

"We kept telling him, 'We're police! We're police!' But even after the agent took the hood off, he couldn't believe a gorilla wasn't coming after him," said Monty Halcomb, the USFW agent who posed as the plane's pilot.

It took both Halcomb and the gorilla, an agent whose name is being kept secret, to keep Bernal from jumping six feet down to the tarmac.

The story is unique and it's a surprise a Hollywood studio hasn't made a movie about it. With a renewed interest in federal operations in film, and with the right director or actors, it might get nominated for an Oscar.

On the other hand, audiences might find it too unbelievable. A man in a gorilla suit fooling a zoo official?

Last week, two sports radio hosts featured the story on-air, thinking it was new. WTEM's Tony Kornheiser Show and WAXY's Dan LeBatard Show each had producers seeing the story on Reddit when it was posted to the aggregation site's TIL (Today I Learned) section last week.

Prior to joining Government Executive’s staff, Ross Gianfortune worked at The Washington Post, The Gazette Newspapers, WXRT Radio and The Columbia Missourian. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Missouri and a master's in communications from the American University.

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