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.