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Saturday, October 11th, 2008
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The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers

by Bryan Christy

To Call These Guys Reptiles Is to Insult Reptiles

A review by Doug Brown

In the herp world, there are two broad groups: academics (people who study crawlies at universities) and herpetoculturists (people who keep crawlies as pets). These groups are largely what Stephen Jay Gould called "Non-overlapping Magesteria," as many of the academics think the pet folks don't know much about herps, and many of the pet folks think the academics are a bunch of stuffy snobs. The major cause of friction between the two groups is over-collecting. Academics commonly don't reveal the exact location of their study sites to keep the pet-trade people from descending and taking all the animals. This happened when Carl Kauffeld made the Okeetee Hunt Club in South Carolina famous in his classic Snakes: The Keeper and the Kept. The world flooded in, and now corn snakes and scarlet kingsnakes are sparse on the ground in that patch of Jasper County. Even worse is when endangered animals are taken from the wild and smuggled across borders for trade. The Lizard King is a good introduction to that seedy underbelly of the pet world.

The titular king is Mike Van Nostrand, owner of Strictly Reptiles in southern Florida. At its height, Strictly Reptiles was providing almost half of the green iguanas for pet stores across the country (we're talking hundreds of thousands of lizards a year). Mike took over the company when his father was arrested for smuggling drugs along with reptiles, an unfortunately common practice. At first he stuck to legal reptiles, but quickly the lure of money to be made from illegal animals took over. He flew around the world, making connections with people running the reptile smuggling trade in Southeast Asia and Europe. They gamed the system, shipping animals to countries where the laws weren't so strict and claiming they originated there, then shipping them to the U.S. from that port. The other common trick was bribing government officials for forms claiming the animals were captive bred, because the Endangered Species Act has a loophole -- it is okay to keep endangered animals if they are born in captivity.

The other main character in The Lizard King is Chip Bepler, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent who made catching Van Nostrand in the act a personal mission. Christy engagingly covers the impediments to progress that Bepler had to overcome. One was the legal system itself. In southern Florida, there were so many drug cases, marijuana cases weren't even brought to trial unless hundreds of pounds were involved. In this climate, getting court time for smuggling turtles was an uphill battle that was only won when it became clear how much money was involved (rare reptiles can sell for tens of thousands of dollars apiece). Another challenge was proving that the smugglers knew the animals were wild caught; this is a rare case where ignorance is a valid defense ("I was told they were captive born"). The other trick that Mike Van Nostrand took great advantage of was conditional release. When animals are confiscated and a case is pending, the animals can sometimes be conditionally released back to the accused until trial. Van Nostrand would instantly sell them and replace them with other animals from his stocks that actually were captive bred. He was so good at this, his 32-foot fishing boat was named Conditional Release. No matter what you think of smuggling and the pet trade, you'll be rooting for this guy to be taken down.

The Lizard King is well written, making it a breezy and easy read. The characters are all well rounded, and even though Mike Van Nostrand is the main "bad guy," he is still presented with understandable motivations. One of the tragedies of prosecuting smugglers is that when the animals are confiscated, the government usually has no facilities or knowledge of how to care for them. Christy tells of a couple of heartbreaking cases where many animals died as a result of being taken out of smugglers' hands. Still, that's a pathetic argument for not prosecuting illegal smuggling; the animals wouldn't have been in jeopardy at all if they'd been left in the deserts and jungles where they came from. One infinitesimal thing I can't help but nitpick -- the title of the book is The Lizard King, but the reptile on the cover is an albino snake. C'mon, you guys couldn't find a single lizard picture? But really, that is my only complaint with the book, and it is just snobbish harrumphing (I'm one of the academics -- we're snobs, remember?).

I recommend The Lizard King to anyone interested in pets, animals, conservation, international law -- okay, I recommend this book to everyone. Think of this one come the holidays for the critter lovers on your list.


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