Reptile smugglers: snakes in the grass?

Author Jennie Erin Smith explores the wild world of reptile smuggling in her book "Stolen World."

A wave of reptile smuggling in recent decades has meant more animals in captivity and fewer in the wild.

If you visited a major zoo anytime from the 1960s to the 1990s, you may have wandered into the reptile exhibit to check out the snakes, lizards, and tortoises. Where'd they come from? You might not want to know. Turns out there's a good chance some of the animals were smuggled into the United States while zoo officials either looked the other way or actively slithered into illegal deals.

By the dawn of the 21st century, a federal crackdown was snuffing out much of the reptile smuggling racket in the US. But in its heyday, it was an underground industry full of colorful, law-unabiding characters who roamed the world from Australia to Madagascar in search of the rarest reptiles on the planet, writes journalist Jennie Erin Smith in her new book Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery.

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In an interview, Smith talked about the motives of seemingly upstanding zoos and the legacy of the trade in those cold-blooded creatures. (The reptiles, that is, not the smugglers.)

Q: Why were reptiles a hotter commodity for smugglers than other animals from around the world?
You have this huge variety of species, and there's a collector's market. And they can survive several days or even weeks without water. A lot of them just shut down a bit when they're kept cool.

It's not good for them, but it's not usually fatal.

And they can be moved, and they don't make any noise. If you think about it, they're more smuggleable than, say, primates because you can conceal them. And you can move them on your person in a pinch. There was a California case where a man tried to smuggle Fiji iguanas in a prosthetic leg.

Q: Zoos began going gaga over reptiles in the 1960s. Why did that happen?
They became obsessed. You had this competition from the South where there were these roadside zoos. There were as many as 900 traveling carnivals, and as the country became richer in the postwar years, many started stationary exhibits. You could go watch a rattlesnake pop a balloon or something like that. Monied zoos needed to compete. They made high-tech exhibits and wanted to get species that weren't easily available.

Q: What's the legacy of reptile smuggling in the US?
The legacy is the sheer breadth of the species now in countries like the United States in captivity and being healthfully maintained, to a large part by hobbyists.

The guys I wrote about, growing up in 1940s and 1950s, often had a rare snake in mind that had only been described. There wasn't even a photo of it. Now, if you have a hobbyist or scientific interest, it's not hard to see any rare snake or tortoise or python in captivity.

I think it's kind of nice, but there are people who condemn it. it. At the same time, if you're a kid, and you grow up in a city, you grow up poor, are your parents really going to take you on an African safari to see animals in their natural environment, which is the politically correct thing to do? Or are you going to go to the zoo or purchase a species yourself and try to learn about it?

I don't think an interest can come or be developed without some hands-on experience with the animals themselves.

I don't want to stick up for smuggling or stealing. But as far as the legacy of that wave of smuggling, it's a huge number of interesting animals in captivity and probably a few fewer in the wild.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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