Crocodile Hunting at JFK
Rumor had it that a crocodile lived at JFK Airport—an anonymous source spilled the beans. Among talk of alligators, caymans and other wet slithering creatures, the names Dr. Feinsod and Vetport were dropped. Some measly clues and promises made over cocktails were enough to send me on a quixotic quest for the croc at JFK.
Lazily, I started my search on the Web. A photo on an animal rescue website features Dr. Feinsod, or “the Doc,” as he’s referred to. The caption informs us that the picture was taken during a trip in the Carolinas “to muck around in the swamps.” Dr. Feinsod stands in the lush greenery in a white sleeveless cotton shirt and a straw hat. In his hands, he clutches a large black and white snake. He smiles blissfully. He looks a lot like the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, which assures me that I’m on the right track. And, in fact, only one click away from Dr. Feinsod and his swamp snake is a picture of Irwin hugging a baby crocodile. “We mourn the loss of one of the most influential Ambassadors of the reptiles of the world,” the caption reads. I am utterly optimistic.
In my initial investigations I discover that there is indeed an animal clinic and holding facility in the middle of JFK. Vetport is run by Dr. Weinstein, who leases the building from the Port Authority. It takes in any animal that gets sick on a plane or is found dumped in the airport’s vicinity. It cares for thoroughbred horses that are about to fly around the world to compete in shows and races. Every once in a while, a crate with a tiger, a lion, a sloth or a monkey sits in the barn until it is loaded onto a plane and flown to a zoo abroad. Michael Jackson’s elephant once spent a night here. But all these animals are only lodged temporarily, usually for no longer than 48 hours. That is, except for the crocodile, who according to my anonymous source has made Vetport its home.
Early one morning before sunrise, I leave for the airport in search for the crocodile. After a two-hour train and bus ride I arrive in an area that neither city nor bus maps show. I get off at bus stop 53, follow the road for another 100 feet and turn right behind a tall mound of sand. Building 189 slouches desolately in Cargo Area C. Its signage reads “AN MALPO T,” with the letter O about to slip off the ragged beige façade. The building and sign are half a century old, and the facility’s name has long changed to Vetport. A trailer loosely attached to the main building reads “U.S. Beagle Brigade.”
Partly unpaved and littered with trash, weeds, abandoned trucks and vacant structures, Vetport and the Beagle Brigade are in the middle of nowhere. The atmosphere has a southwestern quality. In this golden early sunlight, it reminds me of trailer parks and desert cemeteries in Arizona and Nevada. The closer I get to it, the louder the barking of dogs. There is no sign of human beings around, much less of crocodiles.
Vetport’s reception area is plastered all over with posters and tattered notices. A faded poster with a basket full of heavily wrinkled Shar Pei puppies reads, “Beauty is only skin deep.” One notice reads, “Vetport is not responsible for any items left with your pets.” I wonder what items people might leave with their pets. Across from the poster is a thermometer in the shape of a parrot. I don’t see any pictures of crocodiles.
As I’m waiting for Amal, Vetport’s office manager, a white Cadillac pulls up in front of the building. The driver plucks a napkin from the open mouth of a small taxidermied crocodile head on the car’s dashboard. He wipes his mouth, slowly gets out of the car and ambles into the waiting room. He sits with a growl, crosses his arms, tucks in his chin and closes his eyes. The man has tight grey curls and generous features. I recognize him as Butch Stewart, the flying groom and barn manager. The photos on the wall picture him among a herd of miniature horses. Dutifully, the receptionist straightens the clock. I quickly cash in on this leisurely gesture. “Where is Dr. Weinstein?” I ask.
I am able to extract the following: Dr. Weinstein, Vetport’s boss, only drops in occasionally and in emergencies. He runs a private animal hospital in Howard Beach, only minutes away from JFK. Endowed with medical equipment Vetport can’t afford, Weinstein’s hospital serves as its annex. Whenever one of the smaller Vetport guests needs constant medical supervision or surgical treatment, Dr. Weinstein treats him or her in his hospital. His most famous patient was Cokie, a South American sheep dog filled with cocaine. Customs officials had brought the dog because he was ill, and Dr. Weinstein concluded he needed emergency surgery. He took the dog to his hospital, found the cocaine bags and removed them from Cokie’s stomach under the watchful eyes of the FBI. Cokie survived and was later adopted.
Cokie was one of two highlights in Vetport’s history. The press came, and shortly afterwards left. It returned briefly only once to hunt for Vivi, the award-winning Whippet from California. Vivi disappeared several years ago as she was about to be loaded onto a plane and Vetport served as the Whippet-hunters’ meeting point.
“What about the reptiles?” I ask the receptionist.
“Reptiles?” She asks back. “There are no reptiles here.”
When Vetport manager Amal finally arrives, Butch gets up and leaves for the barn. Amal is petite with light brown skin and curly short hair. Her facial expression tells me that she’s not one for jokes.
“When we have guests, we like to have it nice and clean,” she says as she starts our tour. “But it still smells like a barn,” she warns me as she opens the barn door. “This is the straw,” she continues. “It’s nice and soft.” I see her searching for more words to praise the straw. “It’s like the horses are standing on a mattress,” she finally says.
Amal introduces me to Butch and to the truck driver in charge of transporting the horses. The truck driver in turn introduces me to Honeyface, Kentucky Role and Mystery Quinn, the one-eyed stallion. The trio stands in the stall chewing on hay while waiting to be flown to Sweden.
Butch stands next to the truck driver looking droopy and shy. The truck driver is eager to chat. He tells me that the horses will be taken to JFK’s Cargo Center and led into airplane palettes under the supervision of an USDA official, who makes sure the animals are being treated humanely. A giant screeching conveyer belt will transport the palettes to the plane where a main-deck loader stands ready to hoist them up. It costs $5,000 to get each of these horses from New York to Goteborg. A flying groom accompanies the horses. He fills up the water buckets and hay troughs and carries the horses’ passports. He always carries a medical kit, which is only rarely needed. Although the horse is a sensitive creature that often suffers from gas and can’t throw up when something disagrees with its digestive system, real emergencies rarely occur.
“The pilots are more nervous than the horses,” one flying groom says. “Horses are like women, you buy them dinner and they…” I walk away.
This is when Butch suddenly wakes up. “When there is trouble in the air, a horse will prove you that Superman can’t fly,” he says. This doesn’t make much sense to me. When I ask Butch about it, he simply repeats his sentence as if it were poetry. “When there is trouble in the air,” he says, pausing pensively, “a horse will prove you that Superman can’t fly.” He then disappears through a tiny door with “Barn Manager” written on it.
Amal has had enough of the horse talk. She wants to show me the quarantine room for commercial birds from the wild. She seems to enjoy the fact that whoever enters the bird room has to take a shower before and afterwards. She tells me this twice. “Before and after,” she says.
Amal is chatty when she’s talking about finches smuggled in hair rollers, but when I mention Dr. Feinsod and his reptiles she cuts me off. “He has nothing to do with Vetport,” she says firmly. “No reptiles at all.” She then veers off into a story about giant toads smuggled in duffle bags (the toads eventually died of a bacterial infection).
My first day at Vetport did not yield much success in my quest. I decide to call Butch because he seems eccentric enough to leak some truth about Vetport and the people who pull the strings. Besides, his Cadillac showcased the only crocodile so far. On his voicemail, Butch sounds a bit loony.
“Well, I guess I didn’t pick up my phone,” his voice announces cheerfully, then pauses. “So leave me a message. I’m sure I’ll get it somewhere.”
I leave him three messages and never hear back from him.
A few days later I revisit Vetport in hopes of picking up the crocodile trail. I just hang out on a bench in front of the building until Amal’s car pulls up. Amal doesn’t seem particularly excited to see me but it is her duty to deal with the press so she doesn’t flinch. I follow her into the reception room and sit down, pretending I’m waiting for Butch.
A tall gray-haired man in a suit comes in. He just stands there and sweats as he clasps a small cardboard box. He found a sick pigeon next to the “Roach Coach,” the nickname for the local truck that serves coffee and doughnuts.
“As much as people don’t like pigeons,” the sweaty man says to Amal, “you gotta have a heart.” Amal thanks the man and they briefly exchange some words on the subject of pigeon poop. The man says pigeon poop is a nuisance, but Amal reminds him sternly that we all sometimes have to relieve ourselves. Then the man leaves and Amal takes the pigeon to the room in the back where she promptly puts it to sleep.
I ask Amal if she can take me to the subway station on her way back to Dr. Weinstein’s hospital. She doesn’t seem particularly eager, but I am already in the car. As we are driving I tell her that I’ve changed my mind about the subway station and that I would like to visit Dr. Weinstein’s hospital. She shows no surprise nor does she exhibit the smallest bit of resistance. As we get closer to the animal hospital, the area slowly transitions from brick housing projects to middle class suburbia. We park and Amal announces happily, “Dr. Feinsod seems to be in today.” She points to a woman carrying a cage covered with a towel to the hospital. We both emit sighs of relief, Amal because she can rid herself of her PR duties and I because the sight of a covered cage resurrects my hope for a crocodile.
Dr. Weinstein looks like he is in his early 60s. He sports frameless glasses and wears his thinning gray hair long. Dr. Weinstein tells me that when he took over Vetport, it hardly had a roof. Over the last two decades, he invested thousands of dollars on the building. The Port Authority never contributed any money to its renovation and only renews the lease on a yearly basis. “If they need the property, they’ll throw us out.” Utterly unconcerned, he starts scatting. “Babdadalida dudumdeyda…”
Weinstein provides treatment for the airport’s drug and bomb sniffing dogs. He also mixes the tranquilizer dosage for the dart guns with which the police shoots dogs running wild on the runways. “Whatever animal the Port Authority brings to Vetport, we take care of it,” he says matter-of-factly, before a seemingly more important thought crosses his mind.
“Sam?” he asks his pretty Italian vet technician, while cutting a tumor the size of a newborn’s head from a poodle’s armpit. “What you’re going to dress up as at Halloween?”
“Playboy came out with a line of costumes,” Sam says in her sweetest tone. “They have this cute angel dress with little wings in the back…”
Dr. Weinstein seems satisfied. He nods, then cuts deep into the poodle’s tumor to show me its core. “Now you are ONE pound lighter,” he says to the sleeping dog.
Where is Dr. Feinsod? I slowly wander from room to room, each smelling worse than the other.
“The smell of your lunch is making me hungry,” I overhear a cross-eyed vet with orange-dyed hair say to her assistant as she carves into a cat’s belly. The assistant is spooning noodle soup out of a plastic bowl. In the surgery room, a mousey vet with a gigantic cold sore on her mouth is tying up a cat’s ovaries. In the room next door I recognize Dr. Feinsod. He is poking a needle into the leathery skin of a turtle suffering from pneumonia. I feel a pang in my heart. At last!
In reality Dr. Feinsod looks a bit like a ranch hand: blond, long-haired and a tad chunky. The brilliant smile from the photo is missing as well. Like Butch, he seems utterly shy around humans. Our first few minutes are awkward until we decide to talk about animals. It turns out that he shares his Howard Beach home with five dogs, a number of cats and iguanas, numerous snakes, a possum, a bottle-raised raccoon, and until recently, a falcon (“The raccoon ate him,” he says). Before I can ask about the crocodile, Dr. Feinsod asks me, “Wanna see my raccoon?” You bet I do! The raccoon is my last hope. Maybe he will lead me to the crocodile. Dr. Feinsod has Sam take me to a room full of dying puppies from a nearby pet store. The smell of the room is so overpowering that I gag.
“Mr. Fix!” Sam introduces the raccoon. She pulls him out of his cage and hands him to me. Mr. Fix smells nice and clean. His fur is a bit coarse. He nuzzles on my neck, then reaches for the crocodile on my Izod. I pull off his rubbery paw.
“Mr. Fix is a bit mushy today,” Sam says, pursing her puffy pink lips. She pulls the raccoon away from me and takes me back to the surgery room. Dr. Feinsod, however, thinks that Mr. Fix still needs some exercise, so he takes him to the surgery room where two dogs are already roughhousing. The raccoon starts wrestling the dogs, then snatches one of the dog’s chew bones and washes it in the dog’s bowl. He throws the bone in a corner and climbs on top of the operating table where he starts chewing on one of the hoses. When shooed away, he starts poking a cat that is just coming out of anesthesia. As I put the twitching cat in its crate, the raccoon grabs Sam’s mac and cheese. The raccoon, the raccoon, the raccoon. Dr. Feinsod picks him up and kisses him on the mouth.
“You are mushy today,” he says. “I think you have a bit of a fever. Must have caught something in the creek.” He turns to me. “He goes out to play and comes back all muddy.”
“Let me see your mouth,” Dr. Feinsod says to Mr. Fix. Mr. Fix has something that looks like a cold sore. Dr. Feinsod puts Mr. Fix back down. Mr. Fix climbs on top of one of the dogs. “My possum at home is even more mushy than the raccoon,” Dr. Feinsod says marveling at his furry friend.
When I ask about the crocodile at Vetport, Dr. Feinsod hesitates. “Where do you keep the reptiles?” I try. “I have a cayman at home,” he says. “But I also serve as the veterinary advisor of the Sean Casey Animal Rescue. It’s in the trailer right next to Vetport.” The U.S. Beagle Brigade? I had an odd feeling when I peeked through the trailer’s windows. There were no beagles but only tubs and stacked crates covered with towels.
After some prodding, Dr. Feinsod admits that every now and then Sean Casey Animal Rescue (SCAR) has taken in abandoned crocodiles, boas and even alligators. “The Port Authority provides us with space and the USDA keeps one eye shut when it comes to the reptiles,” he says. It’s kind of an unspoken agreement. The authorities don’t know what to do when they find a crocodile, so they give it to SCAR. SCAR then tries to find a home for it in a zoo or outside of New York.
That’s all there is to it. There might have been crocodiles at JFK in the past, there might be one right now. There certainly is a cayman at Dr. Feinsod’s house. Who cares? I have seen much more than I had ever hoped for and I was starting to hope that I would not see Dr. Feinsod’s crocodile. I had not much hope left to find it alive. Considering what I heard and saw, I did not want the crocodile to become part of this appalling narrative. Sooner or later airport animals will die (puppies), get tranquillized (dogs), euthanized (pigeons) or suffocated (finches). They might disappear from an airplane forever (Vivi, the Whippet), die of a mysterious disease (toads), or end up taxidermied (the croc on Butch’s dashboard). In the vicinity of an airport, death looms just around the corner.
Dr. Feinsod now has to perform surgery on a lap dog’s ailing knees. He kisses one of the Italian technicians hello on her pale lips. His hands slip up her back under her hot pink scrub. He asks her to assist him during surgery. She nestles her hands under the surgery blanket. They whisper. Sam finishes up her mac and cheese while the raccoon washes his hands in the sink. It is time to leave Howard Beach.
“Thanks and good bye, Dr. Weinstein,” I say. “No need to shake hands.” Dr. Weinstein’s bloody gloved hands briefly drop the pliers with which he has clamped a young Doberman’s ear. “We don’t need our hands,” he says. “We might as well kiss.”
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.