U.S. Customs Confiscates Jars of Hundreds of Leeches in Philadelphia

by Taylor Cunningham

Last month was interesting for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Philadelphia, because while searching packages sent from Bulgaria, they uncovered jars filled with hundreds of leeches. And unfortunately for the people who ordered the bloodsuckers, the transaction broke federal laws. So they’ll never receive their order.

The leeches entered the states in nine jars that arrived in six air cargo shipments between February 19 and 25. And according to a CBP news release, the parasites were heading to addresses in Florida, Connecticut, and Illinois.

Hirudo medicinalis, a specific type of leech used for medical bloodletting that lives in Europe and western Asia, filled the jars. The shipments violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act. So people can’t trade them internationally.

“Most species of leeches are not in danger of extinction,” a University of Michigan science program called BioKIDS told CNN. “Only one species, the medicinal leech Hirudo medicinalis, has been given legal protection.”

The Leeches are Valuable in the Medical Community

Like all leeches, the parasite feeds off the blood of mammals. And they leave behind a unique star-shaped scar once they’re full. But people of the past believed that this particular breed could remove “bad blood” from its host.

Science has since debunked the bad blood theory. But the medical world has found a new place for the Hirudo medicinal.

“Today this species is used to relieve pressure and restore circulation in tissue grafts where blood accumulation is likely such as severed fingers and ears,” the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology said.

Because of their lifesaving abilities, dealers have been overharvesting them. And now, they’re rare throughout all of Europe. In some cases, people can legally purchase leeches from overseas. But the buyers must get a license to do so.

It’s Not Uncommon for U.S. Customs to Find Strange Shipments Like Leeches

Unsurprisingly, uncovering jars of leeches isn’t uncommon for U.S. Customs workers. Every day, they find strange shipments coming from all over the world.

“Customs and Border Protection officers and agriculture specialists often encounter unique and interesting things, like this jar full of icky bloodsuckers, while inspecting goods being imported to the United States,” Philadelphia Port Director Joseph Martella said in the release.

And you can rest assured that officers will continue to do their part to ensure other strange parasites don’t come into the United States.

“CBP officers remain committed to collaborating with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to intercept shipments that violate our nation’s laws and potentially threaten harm to our nation’s citizens and our economy,” he continued.