The reality of Bryan Christy’s life may be stranger than fiction.
This reptile boy turned lawyer turned journalist turned author presented a reading from his debut book, The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers, to a crowd of fans and curious Cornellians last Tuesday in Uris Auditorium. Christy discussed the peculiarities of his life, his research and the illegal business of reptile smuggling.
According to Christy, The Lizard King is the product of two passions: reptiles and writing.
“When I was a boy in South Jersey, what I cared about was reptiles,” he stated. “On my street, if you had a snake, you were king.”
This passion for reptiles consumed Christy, who, as a child, operated his own illegal smuggling operation. Christy occasionally smuggled his own snake into school in a pillowcase, gaining himself a reputation within his community as an “unusual” child.
“I had one other passion than reptiles, and that was writing,” he said.
Christy recognized the difficulty in pursuing a career in writing. Fearing possible failure as a writer, Christy drifted from his two passions, choosing to study accounting, law and Japanese. He eventually became a lawyer in the Executive’s Office of the President.
At the bequest of his sick father, Christy left his Washington firm after years as a successful attorney, sold his home and returned to his two passions as a struggling freelance writer.
The once successful lawyer endured years of poverty until he received a call from a representative at Playboy Magazine. The magazine inquired about Christy’s story on genetically engineered snakes. Having never written a story on such snakes, Christy improvised a quick story based on his knowledge of reptiles — that story became The Lizard King.
The smuggling and movement of reptiles represents an extremely profitable international business. Smugglers import reptiles from Latin America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere to supply collectors and zoo curators with rare specimens.
The rarest reptiles include endangered species, genetically engineered species, endemic species, unusual hybrids and mutants; the import of such organisms causes devastating consequences to foreign ecosystems, domestic species and the organisms themselves.
Based on the true story, The Lizard King follows Special Agent Chip Bepler as he investigates Mike Van Nostrand and his father, Ray. The Van Nostrands operate the Florida-based importing company, “Strictly Reptiles,” which legally imports many common species of reptiles. However, Bepler believes that Van Nostrands use the business as a front for the illegal import of rare reptiles.
“Why should we care about reptiles?” Christy asked. “The answer is diamonds.”
Reptiles represent the newest craze in a trend of illegal smuggling, following such commodities as diamonds and drugs. In fact, the legal import of animals often obscures the illegal import of drugs.
Like diamonds and drug products, reptiles are “small, durable, and universally recognized as items of value.” Because “cold-blooded” reptiles do not regulate body temperature through an internal mechanism, they require less energy and less food during transport. And since many species of reptiles grow only to small sizes, they may fit into various smuggling compartments.
Before the employment of post-9/11 security measures, smugglers often carried reptiles with them on flights into the U.S. Now, smugglers frequently prefer to pay airline security and government officials to ignore their illegal activity.
According to Christy, true reptile collectors buy and trade the animals “like baseball cards,” frequently storing hundreds of varieties in jars. Consequently, the collectors abuse the animals, exposing the reptiles to unhealthy conditions. In particular, some snakes are rarely allowed the chance to extend their entire bodies.
Because genetically engineered snakes display unnatural characteristics, collectors favor their rare designs. Christy has found that some collectors may pay up to $100,000 for a single variety of snake.
However, collectors often lack the knowledge and equipment to adequately care for their reptiles. Collectors often purchase rare snakes without researching the animal, often buying deadly poisonous or extremely demanding species.
“Illegal wildlife trading is bigger,” Christy affirmed. “It’s the economics of rarity. Nothing drives up the price of a piece of art like the death of the artist.”
Global warming, agriculture, industrialization and other human processes continue to destroy the habitats of many animals, increasing the rarity of certain reptiles.
The government has failed to dissuade smugglers from importing reptiles. Smugglers can avoid most government action by paying off officials, and if the government does catch smugglers, they must prove that he or she knowingly imported illegal species. Finally, if convicted, smugglers receive only minor fines or jail-time. Because illegal reptile smuggling is a multi-million dollar business, these fines provide little to no disincentive.
Rescued reptiles often struggle. Many animals are destroyed. Other reptiles are sent to rescue centers, where they must endure unnatural conditions.
According to Christy, reptiles are “the most exploited form of wildlife in the world.”