What is it with obsessive collectors? Most of us collect something or other--salt and pepper shakers, British stamps, Hawaiian coins, cheese cake recipes--but we don't risk our freedom, our marriages, or our financial security to possess one more. Some people do and Stolen World, by Jennie Erin Smith (Crown Publishers, 2011)is about people who obsess about reptiles. More specifically, it's about men who smuggle them into the US to sell them to other collectors and who hope to achieve fame and fortune doing so. The "fame" is status in the world of reptile collectors and seems to be almost as strong a motive as the money.
Smith's background is in journalism, but the book reads like a novel. The personalities, adventures, successes, and failures of smugglers Hank Molt, Tom Crutchfield, Edmund Celebucki, and the infamous Anson Wong are recounted in a crisp, calm style. Smith doesn't judge or lecture or make free with exclamation marks because she doesn't need to. She lets these peoples' words, actions, and court records speak for themselves and they surely do. Persistent law-breaking motivated by a yen for adventure, by a compulsion to collect the rarest species, and, of course, by money make for a page-turner, a very good read.
Stolen World is surprisingly short on documentation considering the chronicles of illegal activities undertaken by real people, some of them still living. But what she vividly and engagingly describes is consistent with other books on the same subject--The Lizard King and The Last Tortoise, for two, the latter previously reviewed in this blog.
Smith describes how lax zoos were in their animal acquisitions in the 60s and 70s. Until the feds and their own industry cracked down, reptile curators in zoos were a major market for the animal importers, regardless of local laws or the mortality rate. (I saw a bit of ethically dubious animal acquisition myself when I was a new zoo keeper in the '70s.) When zoos began to clean up their act as a result of stronger US and international law--and public embarrassment--private collectors became the customer base of the reptile market. Smith also chronicles the rise of captive breeding of reptiles, which accounts for the bulk of the US market today. Go to the TRAFFIC website, however, and you will find that smuggling wild-caught reptiles is hardly a thing of the past.
A personal note: What I found truly dismaying is that many of these men claim to "love" reptiles. What kind of love pays locals to pull wild animals out of their habitat, jams them into false-bottomed crates to ship them thousands of miles, and sells the survivors to people who very likely cannot keep them alive for more than a few months? What kind of "love" scorns conservation efforts for the species they desire? Perhaps in their older years, some of these hard-drinking, thoroughly treacherous guys stopped to consider the body count they were personally responsible for, but one is permitted to doubt.
Read another review from a knowledgeable person here. The "herpers" seem to have reacted strongly to Stolen World. Read some of their comments (the word "venomous" does come to mind) here. You will find them in keeping with the people described in this book.
Then read the book yourself. It's a fascinating journey through the intersection of psychology, commerce, and biology.
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Captive bred reptiles at an Oregon reptile event.