The unglamorous world of the exotic animal trade

Shalin Hai-Jew

By A Contributor

“Natural history had always been an outsourced business. Someone had to fill the cabinets of curiosity, to steal the world from the world and bring it back, or no one would believe it.” — Jennie Erin Smith

The rumors of elusive plowshare turtles. A National Geographic photo of a snake with a gold pattern on its back. Stories of tree-dwelling iguanas in Fiji. Even a new species.

For the wildlife collectors of Jennie Erin Smith’s “Stolen World,” the lust for reptiles began in their youth, often with pets and books and magazines.

This early interest turned into the thrill of the hunt in foreign countries—for the next exotic reptile discovery, the next act of daring that would result in the illegal importation of wildlife, the smuggled gravid snake with her next batch of hatchlings that could mean a giant payday, and the bragging rights for outdoing a competitor.

In the days before the federal laws prohibiting the trade of endangered species, many treated wildlife like an infinite extractive resource.

The tough men who braved tropical diseases, hostile locals, and aggressive law enforcement tended to have lower education levels.

They approached their tasks of capturing these creatures almost as a smash-and-grab.

They did not have the sense that their removal of native animals affected those fragile ecosystems, and many had highly negative and unforeseen effects in other habitats.

These men would put the Latin names of the creatures on their price lists to add to the sense of the exotic and “specimen mania.”

They promise specimens from “Madagascar, Australia, New Guinea, Israel, North Africa, Ghana, Thailand, Argentina, and Peru.” However, their depth of knowledge remained at the level of popular readings.

They lacked the basic scientific knowledge of these creatures. They would extol the creatures’ physical appearances to market them, but they often knew so little about the creatures that they often did not even know what to feed them upon captivity.

In the 1800s, American museums had appetites for “life pickled, pressed, mounted, and dried.” While the coveted positions in museums were taken up by those from the educated class, many young men aspired to those positions and thought that the way in was to capture animals. One such collector in the 1800s was Alfred Russel Wallace who had collected some 125,000 specimens, with 1000 of them new to the science of the day.

Americans were entertained by 300 traveling circuses that featured various animals by the Great Depression.

After WWII, traveling carnivals grew to some 700 outfits, operating year-round, and all of them had snake shows. “The Southern snake men could feed this demand only with colossal imports from Latin America; in 1947 one Oklahoman imported 150,000 pounds of snakes from Mexico alone, along with monkeys, Gila monsters, boa constructors, and iguanas that became ‘green dragons’ behind the curtains of carnival booths. The animals died fast, but there were always more, and as highways got paved and the rural carnivals waned, ‘free zoos’ sprung up on the roadsides as fronts for cons, luring in motorists with the promise of monkeys and snakes, then fleecing them in card games,” writes Smith.

The wastefulness of the animal trade continued unabated for years. Smith describes a freewheeling scene. In the 1960s, the US had on its books the Lacey Act, a hunting statute that made it unlawful to import game (dead or alive) in contravention of a foreign law.

The strict laws in Australia with a blanket ban that asserted “no foreign animals or plants in, no native ones out, and the same went for its protectorates, like Papua New Guinea.” Australia had learned the hard way. Hunters introduced rabbits in the 19th century, but these creatures multiplied out-of-hand and “made a crumbled moonscape out of its vast grasslands.” Cane toads introduced to control for insects killed native predators with their poison skin and competed with the local frogs for food.

Law enforcement around animal importation was near non-existent. “A gorilla was about the only animal that required a special permit to import.

Medical research labs, carnivals, game farms, and pet stores relied on cheap and copious imports of wild animals. The animals were transshipped through import firms in Florida, giant wholesale warehouses where nursing baby monkeys were created without their mothers, parrots came in with half the box dead, and profits were made by drastically marking up what survived. Some two million reptiles were imported every year through these channels, and though the vast majority were farmed baby turtles meant for dime stores, the rest were wild. Stressed, dehydrated, and full of parasites, few survived far past the point of sale,” writes Smith.

These smugglers were able to find individuals willing to collude with them.

Reptile curators in zoos of that era were trying to build their collections of rare animals.

They had new reptile buildings that they needed to fill.

Zoos stateside would put in orders for various types of exotic wildlife, and the American wildlife smugglers would often find collusion with zookeepers, farmers, wildlife collectors, and locals in other countries.

These networks were closely held secrets because no one wanted to give away competitive advantage; ironically, it was the same names coming up in terms of dealers.

The scope of the collection trips were so ambitious that the veteran animal collectors would often have to bring along some help.

They would advertise and take advantage of young men willing to travel the globe in pursuit of animals, with their tickets paid for.

They served as “mules” for these animals, many without realizing that their youthful adventures could well lead to federal prosecutions and criminal records.

These exotic wildlife animal collectors would dummy up some fake paperwork, or they would use thin connections to various zoos, in order to fake-out various officials in foreign governments. One gasoline station owner who used monkeys to attract business took one of his gas station uniforms and put zoo patches on it to make himself out to be a zoo keeper.

Another ruse involved creating a statuette of a flying turtle as an official gift from an American zoo to an official in another country to buy political goodwill for the exportation of wildlife.

These smugglers would burgle each other’s animal holdings.

They would hold animal shipments hostage if they felt that they might not get fully recompensed for their labors.

They would spread defamatory stories about each other. In one incident, one of the smugglers was so angry with a business partner that he stood outside their bedroom window with a loaded firearm and considered committing a double murder.

These collectors used various ruses to spirit away these creatures and get them past the border. They would create secret bottoms in boxes, with only the approved creatures house up-top and the illegal ones hidden below.

They would mislabel the boxes art and bore hidden air holes in the packaging.

Some would wrap the wildlife in cotton bags and stow them in luggage. They would wrangle official stamps from foreign governments for unofficial goods.

They would launder shipments to change the apparent countries of origin.

“Stolen World” follows several such traders. There is Hank A. Molt, Jr., who started out as a salesperson at Kraft Foods but who saw himself as “a specialist dealer in rare fauna.”

There is also the hot-tempered Tom Crutchfield, who grew up poor and who dreamed of finding a species of gecko new to science in the hopes it would be named after him.

The world of these smugglers is a very macho one, full of one-up-man-ship and crosses and double-crosses.

There are no rewards for those foolish enough to pay tens of thousands up front for creatures because there is a chance that there will be no delivery and just a lot of stories in return.

Animal dealers who would ship to these various individuals also took some big chances, with one dealer from Asia out $100,000 for dealing with one of the wildlife smugglers.

According to the descriptions, these collectors were not very savvy to the political ups-and-downs of their destination countries. One gasoline station owner went to Madagascar to pursue lemurs.”

For a yokelish Texan who owned gas stations and spoke no French, Madagascar was not an easy trip.

Besides being isolated, poor, and barely navigable, it was in the middle of a Marxist insurgency that would soon sever it from France,” writes Smith.

For many, the trips abroad were instructive. In Fiji, in pursuit of the Fiji banded iguana and the Fiji boa, the collectors hired local children: “On Ovalau…the kids set the trees on fire, raining reptiles to the ground and charring them in the process.

Giant tree-dwelling crabs had nipped off the boas’ tails, so they were stubby as well as charred.”

The rough-and-tumble lives of these collectors were upended when “herpetoculture” came into play, with the mass production of exotic species farmed and bred in the US.

As new species came into popularity, they, too, were captive bred and sold widely in big-box pet stores. Exotic mutations were pursued in breeding programs.

The pursuit of exotic species focused on ever more dwindling animal types.

Finally, old age has caught up with the smugglers in the decade that the author follows them. There is still the appetite for some “roguery,” but that is balanced against a sense of the limits of the world.

The former competitors have mellowed, and they can even find a little affection for their former enemies.

Still, there’s a hunger to pursue the mythical Bitis parviocula.

Smith drew from direct interviews with many of the principals.

She also tapped legal documents, media coverage, and other sources. In her

Acknowledgments, she professes friendship with some of the individuals depicted in this book. Smith is a freelance science reporter and a reviewer on animals and natural history for the Time Literary Supplement. She lives in Germany.

Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan

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