Cold-blooded illegal immigrants, from $30 pet-store iguanas to $10,000 albino snakes, creep and crawl through freelance journalist Christy’s thorough exploration of the far-flung illicit-reptile trade.
Covering with equal aplomb the intricacies of both endangered-species history and international law, the author details the intersecting trajectories of Mike Van Nostrand, a major-league reptile smuggler, and his nemesis, Chip Bepler of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1992, newly relocated rookie Bepler was dispatched to investigate a captured shipment of turtles smuggled into Miami. Van Nostrand’s dubious wholesale outfit, Strictly Reptiles, was almost certainly the final destination of those turtles, but proving it was another matter. The case launched Bepler’s career obsession: capturing a fleet kingpin who through legal loopholes continuously outfoxed Fish and Wildlife. While exploring the human passions of both smugglers and their law-enforcement counterparts, globetrotting Christy introduces us to a colorful, if seedy cast of characters. It includes Malaysia’s Anson Wong, “the Pablo Escobar of the live reptile trade,” and Henry Molt, “the godfather of American reptile smuggling,” who began importing in the early 1960s when the reptile fad took root. Fad eventually exploded into frenzy with the 1993 release of Jurassic Park, whose big bad reptiles (somewhat counter-intuitively) sparked an “iguana craze.” Pet iguanas flourished, and reptiles of all kinds became the fetish of hobbyists and breeders of every stripe; the craze spawned crossbreeding, designer reptile fashions and a multimillion dollar trade in rare species, many threatened by extinction. The author illuminates the trade’s clever tricks: boarding planes with socks full of baby snakes lining pant legs, secret luggage compartments, laundering animals through second countries to avert the law, and more.
Somewhat thin on dialogue and heavy on hearsay, this riveting volume nonetheless captures in vibrant prose the dynamic personalities and habits of its human and reptilian subjects.