Want to get your hands on an exotic snake? You could try to legally import it from a foreign nation. But maybe the nation — Australia, perhaps, or Indonesia or Madagascar — doesn’t want to give up its rare animals.

Then you’re stuck. Or maybe not: For decades, prominent American zoos made deals with reptile smugglers who pilfered snakes, tortoises and lizards from foreign lands and brought them to the United States.

In the late 1990s, the underground industry in reptile trafficking went down for the count in court. And the San Diego Zoo got ensnarled in the mess: A reptile curator was convicted of smuggling endangered animals and sentenced to probation and a hefty fine. The case spelled the end of an era of illegal activity at America’s zoos.

Jennie Erin Smith, a journalist, chronicles the illegal animal trade in her new book “Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery.” In an interview, Smith explains why zoos got caught up in international intrigue and how the San Diego Zoo found itself linked to a scandal.

How did zoos rationalize getting involved with smuggling?

I don’t know that they even did rationalize it. They were first and foremost collectors. Zoos themselves said they did these things in the name of captive breeding. It’s a self-serving line: “If we don’t breed animals, they’ll be eaten, bulldozed, burned in their native countries.”

Needless to say, this is sort of out of style, but the reptile breeders have adopted it. They often say that, “If we didn’t smuggle those animals, they all would have been eaten.”

Reptile smuggling doesn’t fit with the image of zoos as being the establishment, upright and honorable like museums.

Yeah, well. The museums have the craziest history of all. They’ve got a starchy image now, but back in the day, they relied on the shadiest freelancers to get their specimens. There was no interest in how they got them, only that they got them. Then zoos began following in their footsteps.

Do you think zoo patrons noticed that certain zoos had better reptile collections?

What the zookeepers wanted to do was outdo one another. The public is not so sophisticated that they’re going to walk into a reptile house and say, “This collection sucks because all 10 species in the genus of East African viper I came to see aren’t here.”

How does the San Diego Zoo fit into the history of reptile smuggling?

It was one of the pioneering zoos in the country and had a fantastic reptile department starting in the late 1960s. Its interest in having tremendous numbers of having rare animals goes way back.

I write about an episode of corruption involving Tom Schultz. What needs to be said is that he was a really outstanding curator and a talented keeper and breeder of animals. He wasn’t one of those guys who got a shipment of animals and let them die.

He was an intrepid traveler and wheeler dealer who’d go to Indonesia and Fiji and come back with animals that other zoos could only dream of. He was a tough and talented guy, and that’s one of the reasons why his own zoo defended him when the government took him down. He was a zoo man and well loved.

What did he do?

He was in a notorious case in which a reptile dealer illegally imported Fiji iguanas and used the San Diego Zoo to try to launder them. But it didn’t work.

Schultz knew the origin of the iguanas, he knew they were illegally imported, but he maintained that he had no idea what the real story was, that they could well have been bred in the United States.

That pissed off the government so badly that they came after him. They had a feeling that he was lying and looked for a way to get him. They ultimately got him for fraud. It was enough to force him to retire and embarrass the zoo.

He reimbursed the zoo for the amount of money the feds accused him of taking. The accusation was that he had used zoo funds to enrich himself. It was clear that he was bypassing bookkeeping to enhance the zoo’s collection of animals.

Did the whole zoo industry learn something from his case?

It was probably bit of a late wake-up call that zoos were not immune to this type of attention from the federal government. If Tom Schultz could go down, I’m sure other zookeepers were concerned.

I actually felt bad for the San Diego Zoo. They’re a great zoo to visit, and they did a good job with the animals.

What’s the state of reptile smuggling today?

I don’t think corruption regarding animal laws is endemic anymore. But it took a long time for people to realize that these laws were real and they were going to stick. Once that consciousness settled in, it seems like most zoos are much cleaner. It’s nothing like it was in the 1970s and the 1980s.

But you have a massive trade of animals from Madagascar and all over the world into China. Its wealth is increasing, and it always had a traditional appreciation for wildlife not only to eat but as pricey pets.

What has illegal smuggling done to reptiles in the wild?

It runs the gamut. If it’s the bearded dragon, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s kind of wonderful that there are so many in captivity. However, some of these animals reproduce so slowly — like Madagascar tortoises — that it’s caused local extinction.

Just because an animal is endangered doesn’t make it illegal to export it. And just because an animal is illegal to export doesn’t make it endangered.

It would probably help if people thought more about this before they bought animals: Where did it come from, was it bred here, and is it sustainable?

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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