In "The Lizard King," his book about the wild world of reptile-dealing chicanery, Bryan Christy describes a smuggling incident at Miami International Airport.
An Argentine man who claimed to be carrying a suitcase full of ceramics turned out to have crammed all this into his single piece of luggage: 107 chaco tortoises, 103 red-footed tortoises, 76 tartaruga turtles, five boa constrictors, seven rainbow boas, seven parrot snakes, 20 tarantulas, 10 scorpions, 90 tree frogs, 20 red tegu lizards, about a dozen other lizards and two South American rattlesnakes. It was one wiggling, squiggling, brilliantly packed load of trouble.
The man got a 15-month prison sentence. But that was negligible, given the vast criminal enterprise that Christy's book describes. "The Lizard King" is a wild, woolly, finny, feathery and scaly account of animal smuggling on a grand scale, in a weird world so expansive that a few hundred stray snakes and turtles amount to peanuts. Christy is after much bigger game.
There are reptile suppliers whose businesses devour 1 million mealworms, 50,000 crickets and 10,000 frozen rodents a week. And these breeders supply pet shops with an entirely above-board inventory of snakes, lizards and tortoises, critters that are "the only reptiles many Americans will ever see." But their business stories are about as interesting as the anti-bacterial shoe washes that reptile-replicating operations require. Christy's entertaining book is about the crooks, swashbucklers and drug kingpins who constitute the underbelly of the reptile-dealing world.
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At the risk of oversimplifying its story, this book insists on a Hollywood dynamic. Though "The Lizard King" involves a great many characters united only by their ability to connect rare animal specimens with dollar signs, Christy tries to arrange it around two central figures: Mike Van Nostrand, the reptile dealer of the title, and Special Agent Chip Bepler, the dogged official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who turned the stalking of Van Nostrand into his safari of choice.
Since Van Nostrand is a sufficiently colorful character to have chosen Conditional Release and Pillage and Plunder as names for boats, he does make an interesting target for this investigative story.
Van Nostrand is a second-generation pet profiteer. His father, Ray Van Nostrand, started out as a Bronx pet shop owner of exceptional entrepreneurial talent. The book amusingly describes some of the elder Van Nostrand's best pet tricks, like secretly dosing parakeet seed with anise oil so that parakeets would refuse to eat anything else. The senior Van Nostrand would also take his mangiest birds and release them in the park next to the Bronx Zoo, wait for people to adopt them, then wait for customers to come buy parakeet supplies.
To capture this kind of stunt as effervescently as he does, Christy must share some of his subjects' fetishism. (He himself was a snake-fancying kid. He also worked for Ray Van Nostrand cleaning snake cages while doing research for "The Lizard King.") So he understands the basic principle that governs reptile trafficking: Collectors' tastes evolve on a "bigger, meaner, rarer, hot" trajectory. When they read about a rare species in National Geographic (a publication for which Christy has written), some of them want that species at any price.
Mike Van Nostrand found endlessly creative ways to exploit collectors' appetites. With much of Strictly Reptiles, the Van Nostrand family business, perfectly legitimate, he still found ways to fence smuggled merchandise. "The Lizard King" explains the set of circumstances that made such operations possible, like the lack of law-enforcement enthusiasm for pursuing pet cases. "There was no room in a prosecutor's day for a Pine Barrens tree frog," Christy writes.
When the zealous Chip Bepler goes to work in Miami ("like Siberia with mosquitoes and paperwork") and gets the Van Nostrand operation in his sights, this book's designated good guy finds no easy way of interrupting a smuggling operation. Animals can be laundered, and not just with soap and water. If a creature has documentation that describes it as "captive-bred," whoever buys it can plead ignorance as to whether it was actually poached in the wild. Bepler figures out how this process works and which countries are most suspect.
The chase eventually becomes international. So Christy has the makings of cat-and-mouse suspense. He also has a tangle of smugglers, agents, breeders and highly colorful minor players (like the tiger-purchasing Miami gangster) with stories to tell. But Christy approaches his book-length task with a magazine writer's taste for the funny moment and bright turns of phrase, at the expense of coherence and investigatory forcefulness.
Still, with a main character willing to smuggle baby pythons in his pants, his account makes up in brio what it lacks in depth.
By the time "The Lizard King" has escalated to describing the bear-gallbladder trade, it is rich with memorable moments.