Reviews of Stolen World

Sunday
Dec052010

The Washington Post 

I'm trying to think of the best way to say how absolutely marvelous "Stolen World" is and wondering if the answer can't be found in the subtitle: "A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery." Yes, it's got all that, along with screwball comedy and a subtle, understated sermon on ecological values. But wait! - as they say in those zany TV commercials - there's more! At some point in her creative process, journalist  Jennie Erin Smith has added, in semi-invisible ink, "And That Crazy Brother of Yours, Who Hides in the Basement and Plays With Mamba Snakes, Even Though He's 53 Years Old." Because reptiles, eternally repellent and charming, aren't really the main subject here, even though they're a constant ingredient. And petty crime, although wonderful to read about especially if it's not happening to you - isn't the central theme either. Read more.

Salon

Any work of nonfiction that contains the sentence "He boarded a plane to Stuttgart with a Tasmanian devil in his hand luggage" is a title worth attending to, but when the man with the carnivorous marsupial in his carry-on is merely a supporting character — and not the most interesting one at that — it's time to cancel your dinner date and take the phone off the hook. Jennie Erin Smith's "Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers and Skulduggery" is a book that fully justifies such measures, a flabbergasting chronicle of atrocious behavior, foolhardy schemes and dangerous animals that reads like a real-life Elmore Leonard novel. (And yes, a lot of it takes place in Florida.) Read more.

The New Yorker

This accomplished, often uproarious account of the international reptile trade features a low-rent criminal syndicate, bored investigators, compromised prosecutors, “wheeling and dealing” curators from major American zoos, and high-priced exotic fauna that comes to the United States in packages, luggage, or, in one case, hidden inside a prosthetic leg. Smith extends a tone of bemused skepticism to all parties, yet reserves a measure of sympathy for the book’s central figure, the improbably named Hank Molt, an obsessive, hapless smuggler, whose baroque schemes take him from the wilds of Papua New Guinea to seedy exposition halls in central Florida, and end with “friends turned adversaries, missing funds, dead snakes, undelivered merchandise.”

OnEarth

"Natural history had always been an outsourced business," writes Jennie Erin Smith in her deft new book, Stolen World. "Someone had to fill the cabinets of curiosity, to steal the world from the world and bring it back, or no one would believe it."

In the Old World, collecting was sometimes a conduit to establishment science (think Alfred Russel Wallace or Henry Bates). But in the New World, collecting more often fed Barnum-style shows that blended science and entertainment: the story of an acquisition often mattered more than the specimen itself. This maxim propels Stolen World, which chronicles the exploits of a dying breed -- not snakes, but the leather-skinned, gum boot–wearing, reptiles-in-the-socks smugglers who bring them home. Read more.

The Week

If you visited a major zoo anytime from the 1960s to the 1990s, chances are good that the scaly creatures you saw in the reptile room got there illegally … Journalist Jennie Erin Smith’s deeply funny new book unveils the colorful, law-unabiding characters behind that underground trade. Her subjects are men who spent their boyhoods in basements playing with pythons and their adulthoods smuggling baby boas onto commercial flights in suitcases, in socks – even, in one case, a prosthetic leg. Smith couldn’t have found a better collection of characters than the “risk junkies” she’s assembled ... Her smugglers, who are at once stunningly innovative and dizzyingly incompetent, operate in a world most of us have never seen. But their day-to-day struggle to keep the game afloat feels awfully familiar.

The Wall Street Journal 

Discovering eccentric people who are passionately engaged in a fringe activity is the journalist's equivalent of striking gold. In "Stolen World," Jennie Erin Smith's investigation into the exotic-animal trade finds a rich vein. There's the Ohio man who ships rare snakes back from New Guinea, then diversifies from smuggling by opening a swingers' club. And the Texas gas-station owner who travels to Madagascar, passes himself off as a zoo director and returns with plowshare tortoises. His name: Leon Leopard. Read more.

The Dallas Morning News

Smuggled drugs and humans make headlines, but another illegal transborder trade is going on out there almost unnoticed by the average American. Bit by bit the world's natural heritage is being stripped bare by traffickers, dealers and collectors. Cactus, rare orchids, fossils, minerals, fancy birds, and exotic snakes, lizards, turtles and frogs – if it can be moved and sold it can end up on somebody's shelf.

It's the creepies and the crawlies that caught the attention of freelance science journalist Jennie Smith, who has written this chronicle, as alarming, bizarre and occasionally as grimly funny as any tale of smugglers and their booty.

Talk about snakes on a plane! And in suitcases, backpacks, purses, even coffins. Pantyhose stuffed with rare tortoises, trouser legs squirming with endangered lizards – the ingenuity is equaled only by the rapacity, as dealers and collectors vie for the latest rarity, the one snake or turtle that nobody else has. Read more.

Library Journal

Snakes and other reptiles give many people the creeps; however, a few individuals, beyond zookeepers and zoologists, are completely enthralled by them. Obsession and fascination drive some through a succession of stages from simply keeping reptiles as pets to acquiring and selling reptiles to finally traveling to whatever country necessary to find more, stranger, and rarer creatures to satisfy the compulsion and make money. Trafficking in endangered and protected animals is generally reviled, although reptiles usually evoke less empathy than other animals and most people don’t understand the conditions by which these creatures are found and captured. To illustrate all of this and more, science journalist Smith documents the lives, travels, business booms/busts, and legal problems of two of the most infamous Americans involved in the reptile trade, Hank Molt and Tom Crutchfield, as well as an assorted cast of frequently slippery, devious hangers-on and associates and questionable businesses and governments in numerous countries. VERDICT All readers will be amazed at the sordid details of how these exotic animals get to pet shops and zoos.

Nature

The alien appeal of alligators, snakes and lizards leads enthusiasts to scour the world for rare reptile species. Some collectors will go to great lengths to get them, resulting in a multimillion-dollar black market in illegally imported animals. Through interviews with knife-wielding reptile dealers, science reporter Jennie Smith uncovers this bizarre underworld. She finds that not even zookeepers are exempt from pushing the limits of morality to obtain an unusual breed. 

New Scientist

VILE, venomous and best kept under lock and key - and that's just the people in this gripping book. Jennie Erin Smith spent a decade investigating the strange world of reptile collectors and dealers who specialise in rare species. I couldn't put this book down, partly because it's a ripping yarn of wildlife cops versus reptile robbers, but also because I was mesmerised by the horror of it all.

Don't be fooled by these colourful characters. They are no herpetological Indiana Joneses, but criminals in it for the money: loathsome, scary and prepared to let their animals die to evade capture themselves. Most shocking is the revelation that some of the smugglers' best customers were keepers and curators at leading zoos admired for their efforts to conserve endangered species.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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 ‘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. 

Maclean's

Little boys who chase snakes do not all grow up to be reptile smugglers. But, almost without exception, the “he-men” who deal in contraband cobras—no matter how gnarly their tattoos or greasy their ponytails—were once little boys who geeked out over snakes. It’s a quality that helped endear some otherwise slippery characters to Smith during the decade she devoted to researching Stolen World. Notorious snake rebels such as Hank Molt, Tom Crutchfield and Anson Wong were unflinchingly honest with the science reporter about how they lied to, swindled—and on occasion nearly killed—their customers, staff, wives and, most especially, each other. “The thing you have to understand,” Molt once told Smith, “is that we’re not good people.”

But neither were they particularly good at being “bad.” Molt and Crutchfield, frenemies who throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s smuggled the world’s rarest reptiles into the U.S. (fetching up to $12,000 a head), lost small fortunes thanks to greed, negligence and alcohol. Molt was gifted at rustling up financing and labour for hunting expeditions in Fiji and New Guinea, but repeatedly scuttled his own projects, usually trying to scam his partners. Crutchfield—who would have his young daughters taunt his pet crocodiles to see if the animals were nesting (if the crocs lunged at the girls, they were)—was sincerely offended by any rules he didn’t like.

But for all the snake smugglers’ posturing, their herpetophilia is 100 per cent genuine. Who but a true reptile-lover would ball up a six-foot python in the small of his back and tell airport security it was a tumour? Molt, now in his 70s, is planning a trip to the Philippines to see about a lizard. Smith once watched him sell a kid a turtle, his eyes lighting up as he explained the animal’s care. “You have the same obligation to a $5 animal as you do to a $5,000 animal,” Molt told her, in all earnestness.

Kirkus Reviews

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. ... A richly detailed narrative of global malfeasance.

The Internet Review of Books

With a cast of characters straight out of a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard novel, Jennie Erin Smith takes her readers on a wild ride into the world of reptile trafficking. And, yes, much of her new book, Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery, takes place in Florida, and it's all true. 

Using two larger-than-life personalities, Hank Molt and Tom Crutchfield, she deftly writes about the history of collecting, transporting, and selling illegal reptile species. A freelance science writer who is interested in “herps” herself, Smith first got wind of the story in 1996. Someone told her there might be some illegal species at a reptile expo in Florida. She went, met the two men, and spent the next ten years interviewing sources and writing. The scope of the book is enormous, covering more than thirty years and a group of highly unorganized international thieves and con men. Read more

King Features Syndicate

When many of us visit our American public zoos, we rarely consider the fact that some of the animals being exhibited were possibly stolen from other parts of the world and smuggled into this country by professional thieves.

Jennie Erin Smith, an award-winning freelance science reporter, reveals this shady animal underworld in her new book, an incredible true tale that features unstable characters, shocking acts of thievery, brutal mind-boggling fights, and at the center of it all, splendid animals – many of which are on the endangered species list ... This is a remarkable book that is the result of over a decade of research.  The reporting is first rate and the narrative as exciting as a well-written novel.  One promise, if you read this excellent account, you will never see animals in a zoo quite the same way again.  “Stolen World” is haunting, passionate, and cuts to the very heart of the illegal reptile trading world.

Asbury Park Press

We love the word "skulduggery." We also like "swell," "emboldened" and "wayfarer." But let that pass. This book is nonfiction that reads like the pages of the most outrageous supermarket tabloid — if the tabloid happened to deal with the world of illegal smuggling of snakes and such. It all begins with a cheese salesman (we kid you not) who roams the globe as a "specialist dealer in rare fauna" — aka a felonious, unrepentant reptile smuggler. He had competition from a Florida carpet salesman, who vied with the cheese man in celebrated captures. The pages of Herpetofauna International sizzled. 

Zoo Mysteries/Ann Littlewood 

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. Read more.

Chicago Herpetological Society Bulletin 

They were all born a generation late. Growing up reading Frank Buck’s Bring ‘em Back Alive and Ray Ditmars’ Thrills of a Naturalist Quest was inspiring to teenagers of the 50’s, but the world had changed by the time they became young adults. There were few remaining unexplored corners of the world, and adventures became more focused on scientific quests—academic team efforts supported by grants with specific missions. The world of individual freelance adventure had become tamed by quick, efficient international travel, and TV documentaries, and collecting animals was now cumbersome, what with all the need for permits and a fast growing list of totally protected species. What’s an adventurous herpetologist wannabe going to do? Seek adventure of course; there were still places to go, and rare reptiles to acquire, while the growing number of international new laws to bypass made the task even more exciting. In the process of protecting various species from commercial exploitation their retail values increased exponentially. The quests continue, perhaps no longer for fame and glory, but the next best thing— the fun of lawless adventure and cash. 

Welcome to the worlds of Hank Molt, Tom Crutchfield and Anson Wong, reptile smugglers extraordinaire. Smith’s book recounts a series of interwoven stories of their lives, spanning half a century of scams and other global misadventures. The illicit reptile hunters become the hunted as wildlife agents try to crack down on the smuggling rings, yet even after terms of imprisonment and financial ruin the tales of reoccurring deviate behavior continue. This book is a tour of the dark side of the convoluted exotic pet industry ...

Kingsnake.com

Jennie Erin Smith's Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery is a fascinating read that I found both hard to put down, and hard to pick back up again when I did. I can't put it down because it reads like a Ludlum novel, but I am afraid to pick it back up again because many of the stories she relates make me cringe. 

Back in the days before the internet, before captive breeding, before the word "herpetoculture" existed, and before most of the laws and regulations about reptiles and amphibians were even proposals, there were the snake men. Reptile cowboys who strapped on the boots, jumped in the swamp and wrestled the python into a bag, or a cobra, or a krait, or a mamba. 

Those men would fly around the world, collect the animals, box them up, put them on a plane, and the animals they acquired would show up at the world's biggest zoos, or in the hands of the few private collectors of the time. It was a loose group of people who maintained their own "internet" based on phone calls, letters, and the occasional mailed price list. There were no reptile expos, no magazines, no clubs, and few organizations open to non-academics ...Read more