“Brown Boxing” The Tarantula Hobby’s Dirty Little Secret

Author’s note: The following topic pertains to the United States tarantula market and doesn’t necessarily reflect the import/export laws of other countries. That said, if you are importing tarantulas into your country, you should be aware of your own national import and export laws.

By now, you’re hopelessly addicted to the hobby and have a wish list so long, it reads like an abbreviated edition of the World Spider Catalog. While shopping online for your next acquisitions, you stumble upon a Facebook post by a vendor you have been following.

NEW IMPORT PREORDER!

Reading the announcement, you feel your excitement build as you learn that said vendor is expecting a huge import from overseas containing a myriad of species. As you feverishly peruse the species list, you notice many of the species that are on your wish list, as well as exotic species you’ve never seen before. Pen in hand, you start jotting down a preliminary list of animals you’ll be pre-ordering and start to formulate a convincing argument for your spouse to justify the several hundred dollars you are about to plop down pre-ordering bugs.

But not so fast.

Although import pre-orders are certainly exciting, and many of us take advantage of these wonderful opportunities, there are some things that keepers really need to be aware of before buying imported stock. Many folks are under the assumption that all publicly announced import is done legally, but this is far from true. Sadly, many folks resort to cheaper and illegal measures to get their livestock into the country, a fact that many hobbyists are unaware of.   

Recently, I covered the topic of shipping tarantulas using the USPS, and how the practice is illegal on a federal level. Many folks are ignorant of this fact and assume that if vendors are advertising the service publicly, it must okay. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Those choosing this method to ship their spiders within the states are breaking the law.

Keeping that in mind, it’s also important to recognize that some of the folks offering “import” are also breaking the law, and on a much larger scale. Anyone buying animals from these disreputable folks are contributing to this issue. Not only does illegal import put customers at legal risk, it undermines legitimate dealers and poses a threat to the import that is currently the lifeblood of the United States hobby.  

What is BROWN BOXING?

Legally importing animals from other countries can be a very time-consuming and costly process. Importing livestock from another country requires permits, expensive shipping and inspection costs, and quite a few logistical preparations. Contrary to popular belief, this holds true for both wild-caught and captive bred specimens. Importing legally can make ordering and receiving animals from other countries a very cost-prohibitive option for those looking to import. I often hear folks complain about paying $40-$50 to ship a package of spiders through FedEx. Well, when shipping air freight (the only legal shipping option for this type of transaction), you can expect to pay several hundred to well over $1000 for your animals.

Unfortunately, some folks find this type of investment unpalatable and decide to cut corners and break the law by “brown boxing” their animals into the country.

“Brown boxing” is when an individual has unlabeled packages of animals shipped directly to his local post office or personal residence in an illegal effort to avoid having permits or paying the often exorbitant costs associated with shipping legally. In short, these folks are smuggling animals in illegally in order to save money (and often to undercut legitimate and law-abiding vendors).

This process actually violates federal law in a couple different ways. First off, by shipping and receiving without a permit and by not following proper procedures, the offender is violating import and export laws. This is in no way a trivial matter. Furthermore, as most of these animals arrive at the customer’s house via USPS, they are also violating postal laws which prohibit the shipping of venomous animals in the US (and, yes, tarantulas are included).

Ignorance is never a viable excuse for breaking the law, so even well-intentioned folks who have no idea that receiving packages this way is illegal are in jeopardy of facing rather severe repercussions. Customers ordering and receiving animals that have entered the country illegally are still culpable and face having their animals seized, paying hefty fines, and serving possible jail time.   

But what about overseas vendors who advertise that they can ship to the States?

Sorry, but this is also highly illegal. Some European vendors will advertise that they can ship to any country, and in their countries, it may be legal for them to do so. Unfortunately, this not a legal way to receive imported animals in the US.  

Similarly, when a vendor advertises international shipping, they are quite literally publically offering a service that is illegal in the United States. In some instances, they are preying on consumer ignorance in order to make a couple extra bucks. In others, they are leaving it up to the customer to research their own import laws before making the decision. For example, I’ve had many hobbyists contact me in order to ask about Tarantulas Bristol, an online overseas vendor that advertises the ability to ship all over the world. (https://www.tarantulasbristol.co.uk/). Even if, for the sake of argument, this establishment had the legal permits to ship animals overseas, the recipient of this package would have to abide by all of the other conditions and stipulations. However, none of this happening. This company is using Royal Mail and the USPS to brown box their spiders directly to homes.

This is NOT legal under United States import/export law.

Why do we need to import tarantulas in the first place?

The sad fact is the European tarantula hobby is much better established than it is in the United States, with Europeans being light years ahead of us in terms of breeding and producing enough captive bred specimens to support the hobby. Many of the new, highly sought after species, like Haploclastus devamantha (formally Thrigmapoeus psychedelicus) and Typhochlaena seladonia that appear in the United States market are shipped in from Europe where they are initially captive bred for the first time. This accounts for the often ridiculously high prices for a single tiny sling.

Until the US is able to catch up with breeding and produce a sustainable population of captive bred animals, we will continue to rely on import from other countries. A disruption in this import would mean that some species would be virtually impossible to obtain and others would skyrocket in price as the demand began to far exceed the supply. I often hear folks complain about the cost of captive bred slings in the United States, and part of that is due to the cost of legally importing many species from overseas.

What is the process for shipping legally?

To legally bring import into the country, a vendor must first acquire an import license from the United States Fish and Wildlife (USFW). Although an independent party importing for their own collection would not need this document, it IS required by anyone importing for retail. This permit is relatively easy to acquire and costs an annual fee of about $100 to renew.

Not too bad, right?

But that’s just the beginning. The only way to legally ship animals is by using air freight, and this service is by no means cheap. Depending on the size of the package and the country of origin, a dealer can expect to pay $750 to over $1,600 for shipping alone.

Now, dealing with all of the forms, insurance, and hoops can be quite overwhelming for the inexperienced and uninitiated importer, so many will find it necessary to hire a broker to guide them through the process. Between broker fees and the US Customs insurance bond, you’re talking another $600-$800.

When you do the math, a legal exporter can expect to pay anywhere from $1,600 to $2,000 on top of what he or she is paying for the spiders. That’s a lot of money and adds quite a bit to the overall cost of the animals.

Then there is the fact that species lists must be submitted to customs before the package arrives, and your package must be inspected and picked up at an approved airport. For most folks, this would mean setting aside some time in the day for travel and pickup, as there are only a handful of these designated ports in the country. Home delivery is definitely NOT an option.

Hypothetically, if the vendor is ordering $6,000 worth of animals legally, he can expect to add up to 33% to the cost in fees, brokers, and shipping. That means a higher cost per animal for the retailer, which of course is passed on to the customer in higher prices.

And now you know why your Harpactira cafreriana sling cost you $80.   

Obviously, that’s a huge investment, and one that would prove too cost-prohibitive to folks who weren’t planning on bringing in thousands of dollars of animals. For a private seller looking to bolster her offerings with some fresh import or an upstart trying to immediately compete with the more established online stores, this could prove problematic.

Which is why some folks decide to break the law.

Many will work out arrangements with European breeders to have shipments mailed directly to their doors for a fraction of the cost of a legal import. A brown boxer having his shipment sent USPS will likely only pay $30-$100 for postage and will avoid the other related fees as well as the hassle of picking the box up from an airport. That’s a huge savings over importing legally, and gives smugglers a sizable advantage over people trying to bring animals in legally.

The impact on the hobby.

Let’s examine two scenarios involving a hypothetical import. For this scenario, we’ll present two vendors who are planning to import 100 Haploclastus devamantha slings from Germany for distribution in the U.S. hobby. Both vendors are getting the slings for $75 a piece. Vendor A is doing so legally, having all of the permits and going through all of the regulatory hoops. Vendor B will be smuggling them in via brown boxing.

VENDOR A (LEGAL) VENDOR B (BROWN BOXING)
Cost for spiders $75 x 100 = $7,500 $75 x 100 = $7,500
Cost for shipping $1,400 $100
Broker and insurance fees $600 n/a
Total cost per spider $95 $76
Pre-Import Price $135 $115

* Numbers used for this example are estimates

In this scenario, the reputable dealer is paying $1,900 more than the smuggler for the same box of spiders. The added overhead costs means that the law-abiding importer is paying 25% more for his animals than the vendor brown boxing. As a result, Vendor B can conceivably set his pre-import prices $20 lower than those of Vendor A. This example obviously uses only one species, and dealers will often purchase multiples of several species with their orders. As a result, those extra expenses can potentially wreak even more havoc on pricing.

It’s also important to consider that in this scenario, we’re talking about a rather large order of $7,500, which helps to defray the extra costs. For smaller orders, the added expenses of importing legally swell to an even larger percentage of the overall cost. Again, this impacts the markup on the spiders and the prices the public has to pay.

Dirty little secret

Unfortunately, many hobbyist are completely unaware of this issue. They assume that anyone offering import is doing so legally, so they don’t think to consider whether the lower prices may be a result of shady and illegal business practices. When price shopping for tarantulas, they will obviously be drawn to the retailer offering the better deal, which can essentially lead them to purchase smuggled animals.

It doesn’t take a business degree to recognize that undercutting the prices of legitimate businesses through illegal practices hurts these businesses and puts a strain on the market. The legal vendor is faced with either lowering his prices to match those of the smuggler, thereby losing money, or keeping them as they are and risk losing sales (and being stuck with expensive stock). It puts unnecessary financial pressures on lawful US dealers, who already have the daunting task of trying to remain profitable in a niche market.

Why should you care?

I often hear folks argue that the chances of getting caught shipping like this are very slim, so that it’s worth the risk. I find that line of thinking to be quite troublesome.  If you’re receiving smuggled in animals, you are breaking federal law. By doing so, you open yourself up to having your animals seized and possibly earning a hefty fine or jail time.

Vendors who smuggle are obviously able to avoid the costs of importing, allowing them to offer their animals at cheaper, more appealing prices. This puts unnecessary pressure on the dealers who are following the law and creates a dangerous dynamic for the hobby.

As we established earlier, the US tarantula hobby depends heavily on European import to keep it supplied with captive bred slings. Most would be amazed to discover just how many of the slings they buy originated from overseas. We depend on these legitimate dealers to legally import these animals into the country, so we definitely don’t want them to close down due to the uneven financial playing field created by smuggling. There aren’t many large and reputable dealers in the United States as it stands, and to lose any of these could potentially create a void in the market.

It’s also important to consider that any type of federal crackdown on importation of these animals would have drastic and dire consequences for our hobby.

The problem with brown boxing has been around for quite some time, but as the hobby grows, it seems to becoming even more prevalent. For upstarts trying to get a jump on creating a customer base and getting a one-up on established competition, it proves to be convenient and much cheaper than the legal alternative. These folks often advertise their import in public on forums, such as Arachnoboards and Fauna Classifieds, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.  

Which, of course, it right out there for Federal Fish and Wildlife agents to see.

If the government decides to pursue an aggressive crackdown of this practice, investigators certainly wouldn’t have to look too far to find all the evidence they would need for an investigation. Publicized arrests would definitely paint our hobby in a very bad light. And considering that most people consider tarantulas enthusiast to be creepy, that would not bode well for us.  

Threat to the hobby

Often, we hear hobbyists designate practices as detrimental and possibly threatening to the hobby. For example, folks who dissuade handling always point to the possibility of a bad Old World bite making news and leading to a possible country-wide ban. The thought is that the negative publicity generated from a particularly nasty bite could attract the attention of a politician, leading to ill-advised anti-tarantula regulation. I’ve also heard folks argue that shipping tarantulas via USPS could lead to busts, negative publicity, and legal ramifications for the hobby. Although both of these issues could hypothetically have damaging consequences for the hobby, many would point to the problem of brown boxing as even more of a threat.

A widely publicized bust, especially one containing CITES protected species, could certainly bring unwanted and potentially damaging attention to the hobby. Most non-hobbyists don’t understand why we would want to keep these animals in the first place, and it wouldn’t take much for a widely publicized smuggling story to catch the attention of animal welfare groups that would jump all over the opportunity to paint the hobby in a bad light. Folks who don’t participate in the hobby don’t recognize the difference between “wild caught” and “captive bred” animals, and much would be made of the creepy tarantulas hobbyists smuggling endangered animals into the country to let them rot in little plastic bins. That’s not a good look.  

It is crucial that as hobbyists, we police ourselves as to not invite negative attention.

Some will also argue that USFW is more concerned with catching smugglers dealing in protected animals and really don’t have the time to worry about a few spiders crossing the border. However, this is still an illegal and, many would argue, immoral activity that certainly shouldn’t be supported by true hobbyists (especially ones that have been enlightened to the consequences of it).

Although the responsible agencies may lack the manpower to catch most of the smugglers, they DO catch some. Several years ago, US Fish and Wildlife agents discovered a brown boxed package of illegally imported spiders being sent to a prominent dealer at the time. This led to a sting operation in which the US dealer flipped and helped to lure a German smuggler to the states. The smuggler was apprehended and received a 6 month jail sentence. The dealer got off easy for cooperating, but his reputation remained tarnished for years.

How can I know if my importer is legit?

Well, the easiest way to find out is to ask. You have every right to know if your animals are being brought into the country legally, and a reputable dealer should be able to provide you with proof that everything is copacetic and completely legal. The dealers I spoke to would have no problem sharing proof of import, including their permits.

If they can’t or won’t offer any proof of legal import, my advice would be to move on.

In some instances, the vendor may have acquired their import from another dealer or importer. Again, they still should be expected to provide you proof of legal importation.

There are also some clues to look out for when you’re pre-ordering import that can tip you off that things might not be on the up and up.

The dealer is not sure exactly what day the import is coming in: This is a tell-tale sign that the import is being brown boxed. Those importing must plan for their package to come in, notifying customs and preparing a list of animals they will be receiving. The also have to pick the package up from the airport, so they should know exactly what day their animals will be arriving on. If the dealer isn’t able to give you a date for the arrival, it’s because the shipment is coming via mail and could take a couple weeks to arrive. They can’t pin down a date because there is no tracking and they don’t know exactly when they will receive their animals.

The dealer isn’t getting a LAG from the European dealer selling them the spiders:  If your vendor doesn’t have a LAG guarantee on the incoming shipment, you should be asking questions. Legal shipments come air freight and arrive in a day, and all reputable exporters will offer LAG on their shipments. The reason brown boxers aren’t getting a LAG on their shipments is because the box could be in the mail for weeks, and losses are likely. Don’t plop down any money on expensive import that is coming without a LAG.

The dealer advertising the import is not bringing it in himself, but piggybacking on an order from another dealer. Sometimes to save on money, two or more US vendors might split one import. If the individual actually importing the animals is doing so legally, this is not a problem. However, there are instances where folks brown boxing will share their import lists with other vendors and offer them the chance to get in on their deal. If the vendor you’re buying from isn’t the one importing, you should inquire as to whether the animals are entering the country legally.

So, if I don’t need an import license, I can have spiders shipped to my door, right?

Short answer? No. Although someone importing tarantulas for his own collection would not need the import license, he would still have to abide by the rest of the rules. This means spending hundreds of dollars to ship Air Freight, having his package pass through customs and be delivered to an approved port, and paying for Broker fees. Unless this hypothetical individual was planning on expanding his personal collection by several hundred spiders, the costs would prove too cost prohibitive for a small order.  

A victimless crime? No.

Unfortunately, some folks who learn about brown boxing honestly don’t care if their pets come into the country illegally. Some hobbyist will point out that many of the spiders first entering the European hobby do so as illegally harvested, wild caught adults. The idea of captive-bred specimens crossing international boundaries illegally just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal in comparison. Some will even argue that it’s a victimless crime, as the the only party losing out is the freight carrier. Hobbyists who complain about the prices of captive-bred slings in the US welcome any type of relief from high prices, even if it means that their stock comes into the country illegally.

Having already covered the economic impact on the hobby, let’s instead take a moment to think about the animals that are being shipped. When we ship in the US, we usually do so using FedEx Priority Overnight or 2-day shipping. The idea is to make sure that the animals spend as little time in transit as possible. Despite being quite hardy and able to survive the mailing process well, they are still subjected to bumps and jostles, as well as extreme temperature shifts as they travel across the country.

Brown boxed spiders can spend well over a week in transit when shipped from Europe to the US. This puts a lot of stress on the animals and drastically increases the likelihood of DOAs. In the aforementioned case involving the German smuggler, the first box intercepted by the US Fish and Wildlife had both live AND dead tarantulas in it. That means that at least some of those poor smuggled spiders didn’t survive the journey. The length of the journey makes it impossible to use a heat pack to protect the animals from cold weather, and weather patterns can vary wildly from Europe to the US. Anyone shipping that distance using regular mail is potentially subjecting these animals to stress and death all to save some money. Bottom line: brown boxing leads to dead spiders.

Honestly, this is a hobby involving living animals, and ideally those who participate in it should have a genuine love for these creatures. If you’re not in the least bothered by the idea of subjecting animals to harsh conditions all so that you can save a few bucks adding one to your collection, perhaps you should look to collecting stamps or CDs.

As a hobby, do we really want to support dealers who would put profit above the well being of animals?   

Unless we want to overpay for a terrible selection of sick, mislabeled, and overpriced tarantulas at pet stores, we need to support the legitimate tarantula dealers out there who are the lifeblood of the hobby. Supporting brown boxing is not only highly illegal, but it undercuts and damages the business of legitimate dealers. Even without the pressure of smuggling, it can be incredibly difficult for tarantula dealers to make money in this business. Many have side jobs and do this out of a genuine love for the animals. THESE are the folks we should be rallying behind and supporting, not the dealers willing to cut corners and break the law to make a buck. It’s essential that we police ourselves or risk the federal government doing it for us. Their approach would be much more sweeping and heavy-handed…

 

Title Image Credit:Cardboard Box Vector Set (Free) from 365PSD.com

Special thanks to Tanya at Fear Not Tarantulas for her help in explaining the legal import process.

Also, thank you to all the legal importers out there!

4 thoughts on ““Brown Boxing” The Tarantula Hobby’s Dirty Little Secret

  1. I can shed further light on Tarantulas Bristol. The moment I entered the hobby I was told to avoid them like the plague! They are unscrupulous, crafty and unreliable. I’ve heard so many stories (and personally know people who have ordered from them) in which the animals are so badly packed that they’re DOA (and nobody ever gets a refund); they send out a species that isn’t the species ordered; sometimes they don’t send out at all and people have been fleeced of hundreds of pounds.

    I could go on, but I’m sure that other Brits who read your blog are familiar with the name. They tried to follow me on Twitter once, and I blocked them immediately. I know who to trust and who not to, and I stick to the same sellers every single time. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this company is brown boxing.

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  2. Just listened to the podcast version of this as I’m finishing up my studying and wanted to comment! This is definitely good to know, and I will keep a look out for it once I can buy all the Ts I want. Right now I am raising a C. Versicolor called Twinkletoes with my chemistry teacher at school. Tomorrow is my last day of school, and my mom won’t let me bring my spider home, so it’s also going to be my last day seeing it for a while. 😦 But to add on to what you were saying in regard to keeping the hobby growing, I do have some cute stories! I have a three year old half sister I see once a month and when I asked if she wanted to see a picture of my spider (it did just molt), she said “I love spiders!” I’m definitely using the whole deal of agreeing with anything the older sibling thinks is cool thing to my advantage, lol! Also, my teacher’s daughter babysits a couple of kids, and she recently emailed us saying that one of the little boys she sits loves seeing pictures of Twinkletoes and even has a tarantula stuffed animal named after Twinkletoes now. It makes me so happy to see when kids are raised to admire spiders, not fear them!

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  3. Couldn’t help but think of a certain disaster I had with a certain vendor we both are familiar with while reading this. That entire shipment is now dead. None of the specimens reached more than middle juvie-hood, save for one of the colony kids which made it (barely) to adulthood before curling up and dying like all of the others in that batch. 16 tarantulas (iirc the number correctly). Four of those purchases were specifically species that weren’t common in the states.

    And yes, quiet though I have been, I’m still lurking. Taking care of my kids, writing, and staying off the “groups” to keep my sanity intact. heh.

    Keep up the good work my friend!

    Casey

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