Freelance science reporter Smith debuts with an exciting tale of reptile smuggling.
During the Victorian era’s natural-history craze, British museums hired working-class freelancers to collect Asian wildlife specimens. Later, zoos in the United States turned to similar adventurers to obtain live animals. By World War II, the heyday of specimen collecting had ended. But that did not deter two young snake-smitten Americans, Hank Molt and Tom Crutchfield, from embarking on the colorful careers recounted here. For several decades, separately and together, they lied, cheated and skirted the law in an obsessive worldwide quest for rare species to sell to eager curators. Many of their best deals violated wildlife export bans and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. A former salesman taken from childhood by “the romance of the snake,” Molt began dealing in reptiles in the 1960s, when the animal trade was still little regulated. Working out of a Pennsylvania pet shop (with help from a crazy ex-con), then from a brick storefront called the Exotarium, he filled the wish lists of many zoos. Once, he created a fake research institute in New Guinea to procure lizards and pythons for the Knoxville Zoo. Federal officials pursued Molt, calling him “an agent of extinction” and the “kingpin” of a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring. In fact, he netted $39,000 in his best year. Smith describes Molt’s escapades as he travels around the world, using bribes, flattery and phony zoo uniforms, as needed, to acquire animals and get them safely past U.S. inspectors. In the ’80s, his Florida-based rival Crutchfield, inspired by the Southern snake men who supplied traveling carnivals, quit his own sales job and built a hugely successful reptile business. His 120-acre Herpetofauna compound included a barn the size of an airplane hangar filled with lizards, turtles and snakes. Narcissistic and violent, he eventually became down-on-his-luck Molt’s biggest buyer. Both men did time in prison, but kept coming back. “I’m addicted to drama,” said Molt.
A richly detailed narrative of global malfeasance.