Synopses & Reviews
Tortoises disappear from a Madagascar reserve and reappear in the Bronx Zoo. A dead iguana floats in a jar, awaiting its unveiling in a Florida court. A viper causes mayhem from Ethiopia to Virginia. In Stolen World, Jennie Erin Smith takes the reader on an unforgettable journey, a dark adventure over five decades and six continents.
In 1965, Hank Molt, a young cheese salesman from Philadelphia, reinvented himself as a “specialist dealer in rare fauna,” traveling the world to collect exquisite reptiles for zoos and museums. By the end of the decade that followed, new endangered species laws had turned Molt into a convicted smuggler, and an unrepentant one, who went on to provide many of the same rare reptiles to many of the same institutions, covertly.
But Molt soon found a rival in Tommy Crutchfield, a Florida carpet salesman with every intention of usurping Molt as the most accomplished reptile smuggler in the country. Like Molt, Crutchfield had modeled himself after an earlier generation of natural-history collectors celebrated for their service to science, an ideal that, for Molt and Crutchfield, eclipsed the realities of the new wildlife-protection laws. Zoo curators, caught between a desire for rare animals and the conservation-minded focus of their institutions, became the smugglers’ antagonists in court but also their best customers, sometimes simultaneously.
Crutchfield forged ties with a criminally inclined Malaysian wildlife trader and emerged a millionaire, beloved by some of the finest zoos in the world. Molt, following a string of inventive but disastrous smuggling schemes in New Guinea, was reduced to hanging around Crutchfield’s Florida compound, plotting Crutchfield’s demise. The fallout from their feud would result in a major federal investigation with tentacles in Germany, Madagascar, Holland, and Malaysia. And yet even after prison, personal ruin, and the depredations of age, Molt and Crutchfield never stopped scheming, never stopped longing for the snake or lizard that would earn each his rightful place in a world that had forgotten them—or rather, had never recognized them to begin with.
"In this very disturbing and very entertaining chronicle of reptile smugglers, the collectors and zoo keepers who trade with them, and the federal agents who try to catch them, the humans are as devious, dangerous, and creepily charming as the cold-blooded creatures they lust after. Science reporter Smith bases her book on extensive original interviews with two smugglers: Henry Molt Jr. is a reptile dealer who, in the 1960s, unable to get a job with a zoo, began a lifelong career of reptile collecting involving restless international travel, partner-stiffing, and jail time, with an undaunted enthusiasm that's survived into his 60s: 'The reptile business Ã¢Â€Â˜is a disease,' he said, and you can't retire from a disease.' Equally outrageous is the volatile, knife-wielding Tommy Crutchfield, who expanded his childhood alligator-and-snake business into a million-dollar empire of reptile hunting and dealing. Even the curators of the Bronx and San Diego zoos let their obsession with the animals lure them into deals in order to obtain illegally imported rare breeds. Smith's affection for these unsavory people gives the book an intriguing moral ambiguity (which might make some environmentalists cringe), but the subculture's brazen shenanigans make for a convoluted, fascinating tale. (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
For fans of "The Orchid Thief" and tales of obsession, "Stolen World" tells the incredible story of the world's greatest reptile smugglers.
Of all the rattlesnakes in the Western Hemisphere, the timber rattlesnake has evoked the widest, most controversial constituency. The first venomous snake encountered by European colonists, it was the first New World snake classified by Linnaeus, who gave it the Latinized name Crotalus horridus, which translates to and#147;scaly beast with musical rattle.and#8221; Benjamin Franklin was enamored by the timber rattlesnake. The timber rattlesnake is also the most thoroughly studied rattlesnake by amateur and professional herpetologists. E. O. Wilson has suggested that we fear them innately, but there is a population for whom these scaly predators charm better than any snake handler can attempt to do. These characters coil in the pages of Ted Levin's America's Snake, where the narrative slithers through the fascinating world of snake research and quackery, including everything from rattlesnakesand#8217; unique reproductive behaviors to its relatively recent evolutionary history. We also come face to face with hucksters, such as the "Cobra King," who in his lifetime collected 9000 of the snakes for illegal trade, and who sold maps to Timber dens for $50, and guided tours for $5000. In Americaand#8217;s Snake, the rise and fall of the timber rattlesnake is examined, scale by scale.
Thereandrsquo;s no sound quite like it, or as viscerally terrifying: the ominous rattle of the timber rattlesnake. Itandrsquo;s a chilling shorthand for imminent danger, and a reminder of the countless ways that nature can suddenly snuff us out.
Yet most of us have never seen a timber rattler. Though theyandrsquo;re found in thirty-one states, and near many major cities, in contemporary America timber rattlesnakes are creatures mostly of imagination and innate fear.
Ted Levin aims to change that with Americaandrsquo;s Snake, a portrait of the timber rattlesnake, its place in Americaandrsquo;s pantheon of creatures and in our own frontier historyandmdash;and of the heroic efforts to protect it against habitat loss, climate change, and the human tendency to kill what we fear. Taking us from labs where the secrets of the snakeandrsquo;s evolutionary history are being unlocked to far-flung habitats whose locations are fiercely protected by biologists and dedicated amateur herpetologists alike, Levin paints a picture of a fascinating creature: peaceable, social, long-lived, and, despite our phobias, not inclined to bite. The timber rattler emerges here as emblematic of America and also, unfortunately, of the complicated, painful struggles involved in protecting and preserving the natural world.
A wonderful mix of natural history, travel writing, and exemplary journalism, Americaandrsquo;s Snake is loaded with remarkable charactersandmdash;none more so than the snake at its heart: frightening, perhaps; endangered, certainly; and unquestionably unforgettable.
About the Author
A former Bronx Zoo zoologist, Ted Levin is the author of Blood Brook: A Naturalistandrsquo;s Home Ground, Backtracking: The Way of the Naturalist, and Liquid Land: A Journey through the Everglades, which won the Burroughs Medal in 2004. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Audubon, National Wildlife, National Geographic Traveler, and other publications.