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FL Press: Book: The Lizard King

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Wed Aug 6 13:40:25 2008  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

MIAMI HERALD (Florida) 03 August 08 Reaping reptiles: Sorting through the sordid secrets of the illegal animal trade and its purveyors (Nancy Klingener)
THE LIZARD KING: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers. Bryan Christy. Twelve. 239 pages. $24.99.
In South Florida, we love our weird crime stories. And we love our weird animal stories. And we're happiest of all when the two categories intersect.
A few months can't go by without a story in the newspaper about some guy's getting busted at the airport with birds in his underwear or snakes in his socks. ''That's funny,'' we think, as we email those stories to our friends in less interesting places.
But those busts are the rarely visible public evidence of a vast, illegal, lucrative trade, exotic animal smuggling, which Bryan Christy recounts and reveals to great effect in his new book.
The lizard king of the title is Mike Van Nostrand, owner of Strictly Reptiles, a Broward reptile wholesaler whom federal authorities long suspected of smuggling exotic animals in violation of U.S. and international wildlife laws. The hero of the book is Chip Bepler, a special agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who made it his mission to nail Van Nostrand for crimes that were, in the view of most feds, not all that important.
Since we're talking reptiles, and the book's primary setting is South Florida in the 1970s and '80s, Christy has great material, and he handles it well, rarely straying over the top in his characterizations. With this cast, you don't need to exaggerate.
There's Van Nostrand's father Ray, who turned a childhood fascination with animals and an entrepreneurial spirit into a family empire before getting caught up in the drug trade and eventually turning informant in a vast federal investigation nicknamed, naturally, Operation Cobra. The drug trade was an easy step for someone comfortable dealing with reptiles, Christy writes, ``just something a little dangerous that you picked up and sold -- familiar territory.''
Christy does a nice job introducing us to the less colorful but dedicated people on the law enforcement side of the game, such people as Bepler and then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris McAliley, who fought against limited budgets and differing agency priorities to pursue cases that many of their colleagues viewed as victimless crimes.
Ray Van Nostrand wasn't the only one to see the affinity between exotic reptiles and the drug trade. After prosecuting a turtle poacher in the Keys, McAliley learns that the ``profile of a wildlife smuggler exactly matched the profile of a drug smuggler; plus there was an added victim: the animal itself.''
For the smugglers, the wildlife trade was attractive for similar reasons. The money was good, and the penalties were far smaller than in drug cases. So were the chances of getting caught. The enforcement attention, everyone knew, was elsewhere. In the major-cases section of the U.S. Attorney's Office, McAliley found ''a very plain reality: a smuggled parrot had no chance against a drug-filled Panamanian tanker.'' Still, she, Bepler and a few others persisted and zeroed in on Van Nostrand's operation, with some unexpected but timely help from Dutch police who were onto one of his key middlemen, a Dutch national.
Christy jumps around quite a bit in time and place, from Ray Van Nostrand's childhood in New Jersey to Malaysia and Indonesia, where Mike Van Nostrand travels to procure rare and valuable animals. Christy also salts the book with occasional chapters supplying history and context for our fascination with reptiles and attitudes toward their import and sale. Yet he keeps his main thread -- Bepler's pursuit of Van Nostrand -- from getting tangled in the facts.
He also resists the temptation to go too far into the details of the ancillary federal investigations that play into the book's events. The urge must have been strong, because the anecdotes in such investigations are so juicy, but for the casual reader, more diversions would have bogged down the story in too much detail.
Christy was obviously helped along with terrific access to most of the case's major players; he even has the notes from Mike Van Nostrand's attorney at Greenberg, Traurig, a former Customs agent whose intake assessment of his new client was as follows: ``We are helping this creep who imports lizards captured in a small valley in Tanzania so he can sell them to kids who put them in cages.''
If the judicial resolution to the book's central case feels a bit anticlimactic, you can hardly blame Christy. That's what happened in the case, and that's how it really works in life, if not on screen. Besides, the real-life action is more than dramatic enough to propel this fascinating story.
If You Go: Bryan Christy appears at 8 p.m. Aug. 14 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. Free. 305-442-4408.
Book: The Lizard King


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