by Eric_W | 2/14/2014
" Ray Van Nostrand is nuts about reptiles. Even as a child, he bought and resold thousands of turtles, snakes, newts and other creepy crawly things. Before regulation of such trade began in the late 20th century (strange to phrase it that way) it was legal to import all sorts of endangered animals. Polio could probably not have been conquered without thousands of monkeys to experiment on. Preventing such trade is the charge of the Fish and Wildife service, a woefully underfunded agency, that struggles to do the best job it can. The book follows the career of Chris Bepler who manages to unravel the web of illegal smuggling done by the Van Nostrand family, owners of Strictly Reptiles, an ostensibly legitimate reptile dealer, which had a virtual monopoly on the business. But this book really isn't about one individual; it's about a very profitable industry and the governments attempts to curtail a business that was devastating endangered species. The reader is also treated to numerous anecdotes, often seemingly unconnected, but interesting, nevertheless.
There is one story very similar to one in The Snake Charmer A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge. Dr. Schmidt, an herpetologst in New York, walked into one of his labs to see an assistant holding up an African snake in an attempt to identify it in a book. Schmidt took the snake, grabbing it a little to far behind the head and was bitten. Turns out it was a boomslang, particularly venomous. Schmidt decided to document his experience from bite to recovery, it having been a small critter and he a reasonably healthy 67. He had some symptoms, but by the next morning appeared to be better, so much so he went to work. He died of respiratory failure later that afternoon. Joe Slowinski, in The Snake Charmer, another herpetologist on an expedition to Burma, reached into a bag that he thought contained a non-venomous mimic of the multi-banded krait, an extremely poisonous snake. He died, too, after documenting his symptoms. Most snake lovers are male and seem to be drawn to an adventurous lifestyle. I don't much care for snakes. I guess that says a lot about me.
Surprisingly enough, much of the business for reptile smugglers came from zoos. Often they would facilitate illegal activities by running front men, hiding paperwork, etc. Even though they could legally import many of the animals they sought, it was easier (with less paperwork) to do it illegally. Zoos compete to get the most people visiting their locations; they also compete professionally. To have the prestige of the "most complete collection of a genus, longevity record, first to breed." It was all one-upsmanship.
Breeding reptiles is not easy. Until the late sixties no one even knew hoe to sex the, The sex organs are concealed within a single excretory vent known as the cloaca. "It was not until 1967, for example, that Peter Brazaitis at the Bronx zoo stuck his finger into a sleeping alligator's cloaca and discovered how to sex alligators." One wonders how long the alligator remained sleeping. Probably leaped several yards in the air. Pretty funny, actually. Hank Molt, the dealer who was doing business with the zoos was finally prosecuted under a multitude of charges. The problem was some prominent zoos were involved and the word came down from on high to lay off. Still, he got one of the largest prison sentences ever (3 months in a federal prison!). But in the meantime some of the regulatory laws were gutted in the process.
Ironically, in another example of the law of unintended consequences, many of the laws (CITES, the Endangered Species Act, the Lacey Act) made trafficking in endangered animals much more profitable. Since the number of people willing to break the law was relatively small, and scarcity made for profitability, the endangered animals were the most sought after making them even more endangered. The biological and the regulatory combined to make the business extremely profitable.
Strictly Reptiles, the Van Nostrand family business was soon attracting the business of smugglers from around thew world. They could supply anything and soon became the target of a new federal task force. Van Nostrand was also selling hundreds of thousands of legal pet store animals and had a sophisticated system set up in his warehouse (an old Frito-Lay warehouse built right on the top of the line between two police jurisdictions, something that came in handy) that would disguise and hide protected species when anyone remotely suspected of being a Fed would show up. His price list was amazing: baby water moccasins for $5, a black mamba for $500, all the way up to a pair of giant Aldabra tortoises for $23,000.
Lots of interesting details about animal smuggling and its unintended consequences. It's not well put together, though. Van Nostrand was a primary source for this book so much of the action is seen through his eyes, but it also follows the career of Chip Bepler, the Fish and Game officer responsible for collecting much of the information for Van Nostrand's successful prosecution. I would have liked to give this book 4 stars, but it ends so abruptly, that I literally checked my Kindle version to make sure I wasn't missing some pages. Chip Bepler died in his late forties so his part just falls off the edge. If you think this review is disjointed, you'll have a good idea of the book. On the other hand, if you like a books filled with lots of detail about a bizarre business, the pages will fly by.
By the way, next time you fly somewhere, the guy's bag next to you may just be filled with endangered snakes or turtles. "