February 23, 2011 1:27:00 PM
When you consider collecting as a hobby, say stamp collecting, you expect for some collectors to be informal about their collections and others to be obsessive, and you expect some collectors to be in it for love and others for money. Collecting and dealing in reptiles, however, seems to bring out the most reprehensible, venal and (shall we say) cold-blooded traits of the participants.
Those are the sorts of guys described in "Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery"(Crown Publishers) by Jennie Erin Smith. Among reptile enthusiasts, there may be some who share the attitude expressed by one character here, "I just want to play with my snakes," but such innocents are not Smith''s subject. She is a freelance science reporter, and has befriended some of these smugglers, thus entering a dark world of scales, money, foolhardiness and betrayal. She researched some of these stories for 10 years, and delivers them with a deadpan humor that is just right for a bizarre and twisted subject.
There are two main characters that weave through the chapters of the book, although the supporting cast of snake geeks is colorful and distressingly antisocial. Hank Molt (what a name for a snake collector!) grew up reading tales of adventure and animal capture. By adulthood, running a reptile pet store in Philadelphia was far too tame for him; he had to get out in the wilds for his own specimens.
In the ''70, there were few regulations on trading animals; the trade relied on the conscience of the traders, which was an insubstantial foundation to say the least. Eventually there came the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and other laws, but they only seem to have made the work of Molt and others more complicated, not more daunting, and certainly not impossible. (Smith describes the appeal of one particular snake: it was "illegal enough to be interesting, and not illegal enough to send you to jail.")
Molt''s usual modus operandi was to convince a gullible young snake fan (such as he himself had been, without the gullibility) to accompany him to distant lands. They would go on expeditions to, say, Madagascar or New Guinea, and hunt up specimens themselves or pay others to do so. The specimens went into crates with false bottoms, perhaps crates that otherwise contained legal imports; some specimens were put into socks or other hiding places. There is little value in importing dead specimens, so Molt was careful with the transport, but the snakes and lizards and turtles were still at considerable risk.
Molt was far less careful in his human relationships. It seems he swindled everyone he ever dealt with, taking payments without delivering the snakes, or taking snakes without delivering payment, or libeling other dealers, or sending out illustrated lists of specimens available for purchase when no such specimens were within his grasp. There is minimal honor among these thieves. Molt himself said that in the reptile business, "ancient hatreds revert to friendships with the promise of money, and ancient friendships revert to hatred with the first transgression."
He often sent threatening or abusive letters in a lush baroque style: "It is not apparent that the SIMPLE TRUTH, by impartial plenojure, will soon render its hard verdict and you will soon harvest the bitter seeds you have sown in the cold and acrid cup that awaits you at the end of your rainbow."
The addressee of that letter was Tom Crutchfield, the second main character here, whose fortunes waxed while Molt''s waned (due to age, illness, greed and simple financial irresponsibility). Crutchfield had a background in the roadside zoos common in Florida. Unlike Molt, he was careful to treat well those he depended on for his supply; they''d get Rolex watches as gifts, for instance. His employees knew, however, that he had a rattlesnake''s temper and could get explosively angry over nothing. He would remember nothing about the violent incidents immediately afterwards, and people thought he was having steroid rages, because he was a weightlifting freak.
His house had floor to ceiling mirrors so he could see himself flex at any time. Crutchfield got rich running Herpetofauna, Inc., which made its first million in 1986. His assistant and sidekick was named Celebucki, a man who made a living stealing antiquarian books from libraries, and had been a prison guard. He ran a karate school during the day which turned into a swingers club at night. He had seen "King Kong" as a kid and never lost the dream of going to islands and bringing back monsters.
Eventually, Crutchfield got overambitious, and federal authorities were able to bring him in, and his lawyer (a reptile buff himself) mounted a dodgy defense which included the lie that Fiji iguanas were so unendangered that in their natural habitat natives regarded them as "the chickens of the trees" and ate them. The defense also considered that the prosecution against Crutchfield was a plot by the George W. Bush administration to distract people from its abysmal environmental record. The legal proceedings involved Molt and double and triple crosses. "This isn''t sour grapes," explains Molt at one point. "This is sour watermelons."
This strange story is full of funny, frightful or bitter tales, and it takes place in the most isolated island mountains as well as in basements full of terrariums. The participants have little regard and often hearty hatred for each other, and their most cordial compliment seems to be commending one another for a love of the animals themselves. "He is an unrepentant smuggler," says a fellow smuggler about Molt, "But he loved the animals. He has a magnificent taste in herps -- a gentleman''s taste."
The love extended to these animals is, indeed, sometimes more than just loving them for what they will bring on the market, but even with financially-inspired love, it is a shame that so many of these creatures sadly turn up battered, starved, or infected because of the collectors who love them. This may be changing some, as reptile-lovers become skilled at in-house breeding of collectable species, but that only means that the species will lose their rarity and thus at least some of their value; the next fashionably desirable specimen is out in the jungles somewhere.
Readers concerned with environmental issues will be distressed, but as Smith points out, reptile smuggling is "an environmental pinprick next to the carnage wrought daily by mining, logging, and conversion of wilderness to farmland." "Stolen World" can''t be an environmental treatise, and it cannot describe in detail the colorful and exotic snakes and lizards in the trade. If you like descriptions stranger than fiction, though, of backstabbing, obsession, and greed performed on a worldwide stage by human serpents, this will do nicely.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.