Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Lizard King: A Review

No, this isn't a retrospective of Mikey's life. It is my review and thoughts on reading Bryan Christy's book, The Lizard King: The True Crime and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers (Twelve Books, 256 pgs. ISBN: 9780466580953).

Several years ago, my favorite crocodile researcher, zoologist Adam Britton, wrote in an account of one of his adventures snagging giant crocs for his research on crocodile reproduction, "He can't have liked me – he didn't ejaculate."

If this is how love is counted 'twixt animals and the humans who study them, then by all counts, animals must love Bryan Christy who, in the course of researching the subjects covered in his book, was "bitten between the eyes by a blood python, chased by a mother alligator, sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula, and ejaculated on by a Bengal tiger."

It certainly isn't love that drives the smugglers and the people who unknowingly (wink wink) buy the smuggled animals, be they the importers like Crutchfield and the Van Nostrands (both in the past, of course), or the people who buy the CITES I* "captive bred" animals from them.

Herpers are people who keep herps. The words comes from the Greek word herpeton, meaning "creeping thing," the root of the word herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. There are, generally speaking, four types of herpers:

- the cool crowd who want a herp, usually a large reptile, just because it will make them look cool to their friends and associates. The "cool crowd" ranges from boys who want to enhance their social status to drug dealers who want to look tough while discouraging any thoughts of being ripped off, to those who buy an animal to coordinate with their latest home or office makeover;

- the hobbyists who are interested in the animals themselves, often getting into the scientific and behavioral aspects of care and keeping, many loving their pets as much as the furred and feathered set love their dogs and cats and psitticines;

- the breeders, too many of whom are interested only in producing the latest flavor of the month—colors and patterns not produced in the wild—with complete disregard for the recessive traits that tag along with these highly inbred morphs, leading to too many early and needless deaths from failure to eat, congenital heart defects, etc.;

- the collectors, out to top the other collectors by having the most unique, rarest, or as Christy puts it, "the reptile addict's progression—bigger, meaner, rarer, hot" (the latter term referring to venomous animals).

There are still too many hobbyists buying animals about which they know nothing. While there is more quality information easily available now, too many people are looking into the suitability of a particular type or species and its care after the herp has already been languishing ("It's so tame!") for weeks at home.

(It strikes me that I am using the phrase "still too many" too often in this article, but that is because too little has changed in the many years I've been involved with herps and the fallout from the "still too many".)

Collectors have no interest in breeding or biology, only in displaying so that others may covet. They don't care about what their predations have done to the ecosystems their animals were yanked out of or how many animals died along the way. While some proudly show their possessions that were legally (wink wink) acquired, others keep the illegal ones hidden away, whispering about them to those close associates in the know, everyone grinning at fooling the uninitiated by their talk of "Halloween gecko" or whatever pseudonym they've come up with to 'launder' their possessions when talking where the uninitiated may hear.

Little has changed in the pet store industry, despite the trade publications and the Internet: too many stores still provide little or no information to their prospective buyers, and what they do is still mostly wrong. Importers and dealers still push sickly imported animals, and pet stores still accept them, pushing the animals out the door as quickly as possible so they can die on the customer, after the purchase of the nonreturnable enclosures and other supplies, of course. After all, they're "just reptiles". If they really mattered, had intrinsic value, they'd cost more to begin with, wouldn't they.

Christy wrote, of the USFWS** agents attempts to get federal prosecutors to enforce the domestic and foreign wildlife laws that were on the books relating to animals smuggled into the U.S., "There was no room in a prosecutor's day for a Pine Barrens tree frog." That widespread attitude affected how those at the state, county and city levels--wildlife officers, humane officers, and prosecutors--did their jobs protecting wildlife

(Why else would my local humane society's humane officer repeatedly ignore complaints about the horrendous conditions at pet stores in his jurisdiction?
When confronted, he admitted that only when all the reptiles and amphibians were dead would he consider that there might be some violation of the state animal laws (which in fact cover all species of animals sold in pet stores).

In 1992, Tomas Medina was arrested in Miami for smuggling reptiles (described in Chapter 1 of The Lizard King). Four years later, when a USFWS inspector spoke at a California herp society meeting, smuggling animals was still an easy, low risk way to augment your income when compared to smuggling drugs. Sixteen years later, there is still too much cargo, living and otherwise, coming into this country, for the too few inspectors and customs agents to check a meaningful sample of the daily incoming shipments, a situation made worse in the aftermath of 9/11.

In The Lizard King, Christy describes the mindset of animal smugglers in general, with the focus on Mike Van Nostrand, the man whose hugely successful legal reptile business was augmented by his equally successful procurement of illegal animals. Mike was even better than his dad, whose business he took over when Ray was sent to prison. Ray Van Nostrand got five years, not for the vast number of illegal animals that passed through his hands, but because he got caught dealing cocaine.

Christy writes, "…if you calculated the odds that an overworked customs inspector would catch you and multiplied it by the prison time you would do if you were caught, reptiles were a good bet. First, nobody got caught; and then even if you did, the penalty was not jail, it was a parking ticket. Snakes? Find a jury of twelve men and women in any state in the union that would sentence a man to prison for smuggling snakes. It was not going to happen. You didn't go to prison for what [Medina] carried in his suitcase; you killed it with a shovel.

"…Best of all, you weren't going up against the DEA or the FBI, you were going up against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Really. You would be stupid not to do it."

Hey, why not? Minimum security in federal prison: three hots and a cot, TV, a weight room, and free health care! Easy-peasy, Ray assured his son when it was (finally) Mike's turn to go.

While I personally would like to see more dates for the events recounted by Christy in his book to tie them to my personal herp chronology, he does a great job weaving together legal history with the often complex narratives of the biggest smugglers in the U.S., those who benefited from them and those who spent years going after them. The Lizard King is informative and often funny; even if you're not interested in herps, you'll find the book a good read.

Okay, so, while reading the book I sometimes felt that I needed to scrub myself down with a wire brush and rinse off with a high pressure fire hose before I would even begin to start feeling clean again. But I did come up with a way to punish those who do get caught without adding to our already overburdened prison population.

Some of you may recall that bags of cocaine were being fed to snakes which were then exported to the U.S. Christy describes the stake-out of a truckload of these snakes that was abandoned in the Florida heat by the drug/snake dealers. Well, instead of prison, I suggest the smugglers' and procurers' mouths, urethras and anuses be sewn shut and their hands and ankles shackled together behind their backs. Then, lock them in a container truck in Miami during the summer months. Choking on their own bile and wastes and unable to escape or call for help while they slowly rot away from within will barely make a dent in the accounts to be paid for the death and destruction caused by their greed. But it would be a nice start and is a better use of taxpayer dollars.

The Lizard King is, in his own mind and perhaps that of Bryan Christy, Mike Van Nostrand. To me, however, by the book's end, the real king was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Chip Bepler, the man whose perseverance ultimately brought Mike Van Nostrand down.

Well, as down as it gets when you're just slapped on the wrist.

The slippery, slimy underbelly of the legal and illegal wildlife trade still flourishes. The players may change (or set up more layers of cut-outs), but everyday, animals and plants, many endangered or threatened, are smuggled into the U.S. and countries around the world.

Ask questions. Don't assume. And if you find yourself becoming complacent, read The Lizard King again.

* Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), Appendix I: Endangered; Appendix II: Threatened.

** United States Fish & Wildlife Service

More reviews of Bryan Christy's The Lizard King

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