W von Papinešu
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DALLAS NEWS (Texas) 16 January 11 Book review: 'Stolen World,' by Jennie Erin Smith (Bill Marvel)
Smuggled drugs and humans make headlines, but another illegal transborder trade is going on out there almost unnoticed by the average American. Bit by bit the world's natural heritage is being stripped bare by traffickers, dealers and collectors. Cactus, rare orchids, fossils, minerals, fancy birds, and exotic snakes, lizards, turtles and frogs ‚Äď if it can be moved and sold it can end up on somebody's shelf.
It's the creepies and the crawlies that caught the attention of freelance science journalist Jennie Smith, who has written this chronicle, as alarming, bizarre and occasionally as grimly funny as any tale of smugglers and their booty.
Talk about snakes on a plane! And in suitcases, backpacks, purses, even coffins. Pantyhose stuffed with rare tortoises, trouser legs squirming with endangered lizards ‚Äď the ingenuity is equaled only by the rapacity, as dealers and collectors vie for the latest rarity, the one snake or turtle that nobody else has.
Money helps drive the trade. Coldblooded critters are hot. Almost 5 million American households now keep pet reptiles. Folks line up at reptile shows and expos to buy ball pythons, green iguanas, fringed lizards. Meanwhile, commercial breeders pump out snakes in color "morphs" never seen in nature.
But you get the idea here that the hard-core snake-snatchers are driven by something deeper and darker, some febrile urge to go to out-of-the way places and do dangerous things just for the rush. Henry Molt Jr., for example, went broke, went to prison, lost his marriage, his friends and his health, and yet popped up again and again with sales lists of exotic creatures that made curators and collectors salivate. ("The Dallas Zoo had a thing for his Australian lizards," Smith reports.)
The trouble was, Molt didn't always have some of the things he claimed to have, a fact that got him into almost as much trouble as what he did have. This is as much a story of rip-offs and betrayals as of reptiles stolen and sold. No honor, apparently, among smugglers.
Molt's perennial nemesis was Thomas Crutchfield, a depilated bodybuilder with a crocodile temper. Unlike Molt, Crutchfield actually had the goods most of the time. To favored customers, he passed out Rolex watches like after-dinner mints, building a $2 million-dollar-a-year business before ambition, carelessness, crooked associates and federal authorities got the best of him.
Looking under the rocks, the author has turned up a dozen or so other characters, each as colorful, and several of them possibly as dangerous, as their wares. Gold-flashing Asian rare-animal dealers, snake-smitten college kids, and some zoo people, who should know better. Almost every major zoo in the country has benefited at one time or another from the trade in illegal reptiles, Smith writes.
For some reason, authorities have neglected prosecution of those who buy smuggled reptiles, especially when they buy on behalf of an institution. But then, legal pursuit of the sellers has also been an off- and on-again thing, waxing and waning with the particular administration's enthusiasm for wildlife protection. (Jimmy Carter was a high point; since then, not so much.)
In the past, zoos justified participation in the trade on the theory better alive in our cages than extinct in some coffee plantation or jungle clearing. Smith is unfriendly toward this argument, perhaps unfairly. Programs to breed rare and endangered species ‚Äď and here the Dallas Zoo has been a leader ‚Äď have arguably taken some of the pressure off wild populations. Undeniably, development and habitat destruction endanger far more wildlife of every kind than a handful of collectors.
Nevertheless, this is a mournful story for anyone who loves nature, who hopes to encounter out there somewhere along the trail something rare and beautiful.
Dallas writer Bill Marvel has collected snakes since he was a boy in Denver, but he never smuggled them in his pants.
Book review: 'Stolen World,' by Jennie Erin Smith
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