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What came first, the chicken feathers or the bureaucratic nightmare?

Chicken feathers on dream catchers caught the attention of the US Fish & Wildlife Service.Jim Davis/Globe staff

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The first 10,500 miles of the journey went just as planned.

The 40-foot shipping container, stuffed with handicrafts, was safely lifted aboard a transport ship in Indonesia in August. It traveled by sea to Malaysia, then past India, into the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, along the length of the Mediterranean Sea, before threading the Strait of Gibraltar.

Next, the 13,800 pounds of furniture, jewelry, and figurines chosen by retailer Paul Swope of New Hampshire crossed the Atlantic Ocean, easing into Boston on Sept. 17 aboard the mammoth cargo vessel Kolkata, after 42 days in transit.

But Swope’s merchandise was about to come to an abrupt stop — because of chicken feathers.


What followed was a bureaucratic odyssey unlike anything Swope had seen during his 16 years in business, a saga that would eventually cost him many thousands of dollars, significant time, and even more aggravation — and leave him wondering whether he would continue running his shop.

The feathers had seemed innocent enough to Swope, hanging from decorative “dream catchers” that he acquired on a buying trip to Indonesia for his Manchester retail store.

But the feathers tickled the interest of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which stopped the entire shipment of 6,500 items because Swope had not applied for a $100 permit to sell feathers and shells, Swope said.

He had not known about the requirement, he said, and produced for the agency certificates from Indonesia saying all the feathers and shells in the container had been properly harvested and sanitized. But the government was unmoved. The shipment wasn’t leaving without the permit, unless it went back to Indonesia.

Acquiring the permit, Swope was told, would take 60 days, he said, in an interview at his store, “A World Apart,” a colorful space in the Mall of New Hampshire, between Hallmark and Vitamin World.


Swope, 58, said the business he runs with his wife and five of his nine children could not afford two months of dock storage fees. His family applied for the missing permit and agreed in the meantime to have the shipment taken to a warehouse where a crew — at Swope’s expense — would unload it for a government inspection, beginning a level of scrutiny Swope had never experienced.

“We had no choice but to agree,” he said.

The inspection began Sept. 26, and only deepened his problems.

Fish & Wildlife discovered 14 lamps in the container made of wood, and called in another arm of the federal government, the Department of Agriculture, to have a look at them, he said.

The USDA inspected the lamps and on Oct. 4 issued a document titled EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION that stated that Swope lacked certification for the lamps. He had to either: 1) pay to ship all his wares back halfway across the planet, 2) ship back the lamps alone in their own container, or 3) pay to incinerate the lamps locally, according to Swope and the document.

Unable to learn from USDA at the time which lamps were the problem, or exactly what the problem might be, Swope said “we had no chance to disprove the allegations,” and no reasonable choice but to destroy the lamps.

Paul Swope in his store “A World Apart” located in the Mall of New Hampshire. Jim Davis/Globe staff/Globe Staff

The incinerator charged $775. Swope was also out the $1,000 value of the lamps. It did him no good, he said, that his supplier in Indonesia later sent a letter declaring the lamps were properly made and sanitized, and were legal.


USDA spokeswoman Yindra Dixon declined to answer questions on the specifics of Swope’s case, and offered by e-mail that “the item that was intercepted was considered a prohibited product, which is not allowed to enter the United States.”

She explained, speaking generally, that the mission of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is “to safeguard American agriculture by detecting and preventing harmful plant and animal pest and disease introductions.”

She said the Inspection Service regulates movement of plant and animal material across the US border, in accordance with laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, which prohibits trafficking in illegal wildlife and plants.

For Swope, the lamps were lost but the feather and shell permit arrived quicker than expected. Still, Fish & Wildlife was not satisfied, he said. The agency wanted the Latin name for each shell species — perna viridis, pinctada maxima — matched up to 25 products with shells in the container, he said. Swope said he tracked down documentation from Indonesia, but the questions kept coming: Were the shells farmed or harvested in the wild? Are the shells originally from Indonesia?

The shipment was finally released Oct. 10, but Swope said after the family picked it up they found $5,000 worth of damage. “Imagine how I feel going through all this and finding stuff smashed,” he said. “I feel violated.”


With damage, fees, and the costs related to the fiery fate of his lamps, the ordeal that began with chicken feathers cost him $11,400, he said.

And things only looked worse from there. In November a second shipment, much smaller, coming from Morocco, was stopped. This time, he said, the government seized 284 decorative wooden jewelry boxes, worth almost $12,000, apparently because the design included mother-of-pearl, a type of shell. Mother-of-pearl may legally be imported but must be declared to Fish & Wildlife, either online or by filing a form on paper; Swope said the shipment from Morocco had been prepared months before he knew of the requirements for shells.

For weeks he feared the jewelry boxes would meet the same ashy end as his lamps, and he wondered whether the business might have to close forever. The financial and personal costs of dealing with Uncle Sam were just too high.

“This has been the most stressful three months of my life,” he said Dec. 7.

The exterior of "A World Apart.” Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

But then something remarkable happened. Swope said he got a call from the resident agent in charge of Fish & Wildlife’s New England District Office of Law Enforcement, inviting Swope to a meeting this past Thursday at the district’s office in Chelsea. A Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman told the Globe that the agency was working toward “a resolution” with Swope.

For more than two hours Thursday, Fish & Wildlife personnel went over pages of regulations with the retailer. Then, at the end, they told him he could have his jewelry boxes.


Swope was elated. “I hugged the Fish and Wildlife people.”

The boxes went on sale late Thursday afternoon, priced between $20 and $50. He sold one the first hour.

It is too soon to say whether he will maintain the business after this season. “There has to be a process of healing,” he said Friday. “There’s been too much drama for me to make that decision now.”

Paul Swope held an item that has some small mother of pearl on top of it in his store "A World Apart.”Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.