Stolen World

In 1974 Hank Molt, a cheese salesman turned reptile dealer, took a trip around the world to collect rare and wonderful specimens for zoos. Photo of Hank Molt by Roy B. RipleyA year later he faced criminal charges under the newly passed Endangered Species Act. Molt re-emerged from prison hardened and invigorated, a smuggler in full. Molt created fake research institutes in New Guinea, conspired to steal giant snakes from national parks in Australia, and impersonated professors in Fiji. He continued to sell to many of the same celebrated institutions he had before, albeit in a much more clandestine capacity.

Molt’s many successes, however, were soon dwarfed by those of a Florida carpet salesman and gator wrestler named Tommy Crutchfield, who was by the 1980s selling countless more snakes and lizards than Molt ever had, to the best zoos in the country, and becoming a millionaire in the process.Photo of Tom Crutchfield by Bill Love

By the 1990s, Molt and Crutchfield had fallen into a bitter rivalry. The two became enmeshed over a shipment of illegal Fijian iguanas, and the fallout from their feud catapulted Crutchfield to the center of a sprawling investigation with a reach extending through Germany, Madagascar, and Malaysia. Crutchfield fled the country, Molt was stuck managing a Starbucks, and the nation’s most reputable zoo was scandalized. A decade later, both were back in business – Molt devoting his energies to obscure smuggling schemes in Ethiopia and Brazil, Crutchfield trying, with mixed success, to reclaim his earlier fortunes and salvage his repute.

Stolen World follows Molt and Crutchfield’s respective journeys from sought-after specialist dealers to wanted criminals, exploring their complex and often improbable motives. As young men they had modeled themselves, with great care and deliberation, after the famed Victorian naturalist-explorers who went out into the world and collected extraordinary fauna for zoos and museums. And 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 them the grudging respect of a scientific establishment that had come to shun them.

Never before has the story of the animal underworld been told with such intimacy and depth. The result of a decade’s reporting, with an unusual level of cooperation from normally circumspect criminals, Stolen World cuts to the heart of the illegal wildlife trade—and the surprising sensibilities of those who live it.