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Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review: Stolen World

After the Second World War, the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia began clamping down on their wildlife exports, forcing American and European zoos to either become a) self-sustaining or b) smuggle.  The mammal folks quickly adopted the first option (largely out of necessity - I mean, how do you smuggle a RHINO?). Stolen World, by Jennie Erin Smith, explores the second option.

Smith details the exploits of Hank Molt and Tommy Crutchfield, two seasoned reptile smugglers.  Molt traveled the world from Africa to New Guinea, loading up suitcases with Boelen's pythons, Fiji iguanas, and other priceless reptiles.  From his compound in Florida, Crutchfield oversaw an empire of herpetoculture, becoming one of the richest men in the business.  As sometimes partners, sometimes rivals, they introduced several new species to the American pet trade and changed the face of reptile-keeping in this country.  They also broke quite a few laws, and both spent some time in jail.

 Smith doesn't preach or harp in her fascinating dual-biography: if she had been, it's doubtful that either of these men would have been as willing to candidly share their secrets and stories with her.  Instead, she offers a unique insight into a world that few people have even imagines.  Still, it's hard for a zookeeper, especially a reptile keeper, to not cringe at the thought of how many snakes, lizards, and chelonians must have died as Molt and Crutchfield set out to make their fortunes.

Smith doesn't spare the rod when it comes to the zoos - many of the most prominent zoos in the US were dependent on Molt and Crutchfield to fill their exhibits, and some offered considerable assistance to the smugglers.  Even the most reputable of zoos found themselves wrapped up in the sometimes shady dealings.  John Behlar of WCS Bronx Zoo stands out as one of Smith's protagonists (or, if Molt is the hero, I guess that would make him the antagonist) who takes a stand against smuggling.  Yet even he nearly succumbs to temptation when he sees a chance of sourcing critically endangered ploughshare tortoises for his zoo.

I've had many pet reptiles over the years, but my favorites are the ridge-tailed monitor lizards I own now.  They were captive bred by a hobbyist friend of mine, who bought their parents from a dealer.  After reading Smith's Stolen Worlds, I watch them bask in their tank and wonder, "How exactly did their ancestors come to this country?"  I wouldn't be surprised if it was in the bottom of one of Hank Molt's suitcases...

Stolen World at Amazon.com

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