The New York Times
Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggeryby Jennie Erin Smith
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.
The New York Times
“[An] accomplished, often uproarious account of the international reptile trade.”
“Discoveringeccentric 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. Ms. Smith has an eye for offbeat detail, and there's something startling or funny on nearly every page.”
—Wall Street Journal
“VERDICT: All readers will be amazed at the sordid details of how these exotic animals get to pet shops and zoos.”
“A remarkable book…as exciting as a well-written novel. Stolen World is haunting, passionate, and cuts to the very heart of the illegal reptile trading world.”
—Larry Cox, King Features Syndicate
“Deeply funny ….Smith couldn’t have found a better collection of characters than the “risk junkies” she’s assembled.”
“As alarming, bizarre and occasionally as grimly funny as any tale of smugglers and their booty….this is a mournful story for anyone who loves nature, who hopes to encounter out there somewhere along the trail something rare and beautiful.”
—Dallas Morning News
“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’…this book is a treat.”
“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 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.”
“Science reporter Smith debuts with an exciting tale of reptile smuggling . . . A richly detailed narrative of global malfeasance.”
“Very disturbing and very entertaining chronicle of reptile smugglers... Science reporter 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.” —Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review
“IF DARWIN, DOSTOYEVSKY, AND GEORGE LUCAS had collaborated on a novel, it might have resembled Stolen World. But it’s all true. The characters of Henry Molt and Tommy Crutchfield are Indiana Jones wannabes rewritten by Monty Python, as bizarre, dark, funny, and irresistible as any of the nobler yet loonier protagonists of fiction. Jennie Erin Smith has unearthed a riveting tale of the collision of the old world of zoological adventuring and the new world of Greenpeace and political correctness. And her writing serves it up superbly, the equal to every fantastic element of this wondrous, strange, endearing story of human folly.”
—Peter Nichols, author of A Voyage for Madmen
“The snakes in the grass are not necessarily reptiles in Jennie Erin Smith’s marvelous book. They’re smugglers in love with wild life in all of its manifestations, and you’ll find yourself
rooting for them against the zooreaucrats who lust after the same beautiful and often deadly beasts. Smith conveys this stolen world with—dare I say it?—a viperish wit.”
—Will Blythe, author of To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever
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. Many of their best deals violated wildlife export bans and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. A former salesman taken from childhood by "the romance of the snake," Molt began dealing in reptiles in the 1960s, when the animal trade was still little regulated. Working out of a Pennsylvania pet shop (with help from a crazy ex-con), then from a brick storefront called the Exotarium, he filled the wish lists of many zoos. Once, he created a fake research institute in New Guinea to procure lizards and pythons for the Knoxville Zoo. Federal officials pursued Molt, calling him "an agent of extinction" and the "kingpin" of a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring. In fact, he netted $39,000 in his best year. Smith describes Molt's escapades as he travels around the world, using bribes, flattery and phony zoo uniforms, as needed, to acquire animals and get them safely past U.S. inspectors. In the '80s, his Florida-based rival Crutchfield, inspired by the Southern snake men who supplied traveling carnivals, quit his own sales job and built a hugely successful reptile business. His 120-acre Herpetofauna compound included a barn the size of an airplane hangar filled with lizards, turtles and snakes. Narcissistic and violent, he eventually became down-on-his-luck Molt's biggest buyer. Both men did time in prison, but kept coming back. "I'm addicted to drama," said Molt.
A richly detailed narrative of global malfeasance.
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- Random House
- NOOK Book
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- 5 MB
Meet the Author
JENNIE ERIN SMITH is a freelance science reporter and a frequent reviewer on
animals and natural history for the Times Literary Supplement. She is a recipient
of the Rona Jaffe Award for women writers, a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work
Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, two first-place awards from the American
Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, and the Waldo Proffitt Award for
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