catching herpes at the zoo

Henry Molt started out his working life as a Kraft salesman.

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When Molt’s workdays of counting mayonnaise jars and issuing credits for moldy cheese ended, he would retreat to his parents’ house and write letters to foreign animal dealers. Molt wanted only the rare animals, reptiles even the zoos couldn’t get, so he sought out dealers in countries that restricted, or banned, the export of wildlife to the United States.

Albino Echidna found here

His heroes were men like Ditmars and Frank “Bring ’em back Alive” Buck. “Frank Buck was going to get rhinos or elephants ninety fucking years ago, when there was no treatment for malaria, just some gin and tonics when you got a chance. Overcoming these odds like they were nothing.”

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Molt quit Kraft Foods and with his mother-in-law’s money, he bought a pet store in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia. He quickly gained repute as a boutique dealer, someone with excellent taste in reptiles. In the mid 1960s, little thought was given to regulating the animal trade; a middle-class family could still return from Florida in those years with a baby alligator.

Baby Alligator found here

Molt saw little cause for restraint. A zookeeper in Australia scheduled big shipments of snakes and lizards for around Christmas, when postal and cargo workers were overwhelmed. If a shipment contained venomous snakes, the package was mislabeled on the outside. Inside was a warning sticker, “in case the guy got bit,” Molt said. “If they opened it that much we were fucked anyway.”

read about two stupid Australians and a snake here

With the exception of a woman wrestler who slept with snakes in her bed, his big customers were all zoos. Another Australian, Henry Szoke, began shipping endangered species to Molt. When shipments were large, Szoke sent them in red shipping crates labeled “art.” Molt paid him cash, which he mailed in Hallmark cards.

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The apartment upstairs from Molt’s pet shop was occupied by an ex-convict named BobUdell, a bearish young man in and out of mental institutions and jail, who would set police cars on fire, or shoplift large quantities of meat. Udell decorated his apartment with bead curtains and a naked mannequin lying in a coffin. “Udell had a talent with the animals. He could walk by a cage and see a snake not lying right, and sure enough the animal was dehydrated,” Molt said. “Plus you couldn’t make him go away—he would burn your house to the ground.”

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A peculiar man phoned the pet shop one day. He sounded like a hillbilly, and yet he was on his way to Madagascar, he told Molt, “to get some lemurs.” He was thinking of picking up some snakes while he was there. “The problem is,” the man said, “I can’t tell one from the other.”

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The hillbilly turned out to be a towering, freckled, elfin eared man named Leon Leopard. He lived in Waco, Texas, on a street called Parrot Street. For a yokelish Texan who owned gas stations and spoke no French, Madagascar was not an easy trip but he returned from there with the rarest of the rare—lemurs, boas, plow-share tortoises….

For more on the fascinating characters who smuggled rare animals around the world (often because legitimate enterprises like museums and zoos were willing to turn a blind eye to how the animals were obtained), read Stolen World by Jennie Erin Smith

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 10:48 am  Comments (44)  
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44 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Is “herpes” in the title a little joke about herpetologists?

    • Yes it is!

      • Clever 🙂

  2. I’ve always wondered why people have such an obsession with rare animals until my friend Andrew explained that they don’t taste very good if they’re well done.

    • Your “friend” Andrew…. does he have an answer for everything?

  3. So… the woman wrestler who slept with snakes in her bed wasn’t interesting enough to write about or link to?

    • I liked the article I linked to so much that I bought a Kindle copy of the book. I’m up to chapter 3 and there hasn’t been any more mention of her yet….. I’ll keep you posted

  4. LORD, echidnas are cute!

    • Yes, and so is that baby lemur

      • And tasty. Oh wait, I thought you said Enchiladas.

  5. While I feel for the animals, the human animal, once again, proves to be the most fascinating.

    YourZ

  6. Don’t most wrestling women sleep with *snakes* in the beds? 😉

  7. Barking mad the lot of ’em…

  8. i miss those little green pet turtles we used to be able to buy at the five and dime when we were kids… apparently they were also a really good way to get salmonella… but they were cute! we fed them dead flies and raw hamburger.

    • I miss those turtles we used to feed at Skala Eressos

  9. Herpes in a zoo? A bit better than getting the clap in a cat house…

  10. This has become a real problem in South Florida, USA. Ex-pets have been released into the environment(think Everglades) and snakes and fish and plants that are not native are wreaking havoc on the flora and fauna in this area upsetting the entire ecological system. All the illegal immigrants are also contaminating everything.

    • What exactly do you mean by that last sentence Carl? I’m not sure I understand it.

  11. “The problem is,” the man said, “I can’t tell one from the other.” Snakeist!

  12. We get the Australian Border Patrol TV show here. Seems like sending endangered species by post is still sadly a profitable business.

  13. That lemur is adorable! And if they want me to boycott Kraft, they are going to have to put something other than a cute naked chick on the box. 🙂

  14. I don’t know where you get this stuff Nurse Myra. But it amazes me how crazy the world really is.

    You truly have a gift for digging up the most delicious morsels of history. I never get bored of your posts.

  15. All baby animals are cute! But a baby alligator… still scary.

    • Not for the first 8 inches…..

  16. Great tidbits and wonderfully impossible to ignore title. I’ve been on an animal trip for the last ten days and this helped satisfy me. Although not yet fully.

  17. We have so many exotic invasive animals on the loose in the jungle, we just can’t kill them fast enough.

  18. He couldn’t tell the difference between a lemur and a snake?

    I’ve never known anyone to do that with a mannequin, but I did know some people who put a life sized cardboard cutout of John Wayne in their front window when they went on vacation so it looked like someone was guarding the house.

  19. I kept snakes when I was in high school, one boa constrictor and one bull snake. They were very interesting pets indeed. But neither one of them was wild caught, both were captive bred.

    I boycott Kraft — “pasteurized processed cheese food” — always wondered what you feed cheese.

    • Yes, although somehow that image doesn’t quite fit my idea of a boycott!

      The King

      • I’m just imagining a handsome boy lying on an army cot, waiting for me to molest him… sorry, what were you saying?

  20. Burn your house to the ground? Did Tag Larkin live upstairs?

    • I wish. If Tag Larkin (or his creator) lived up stairs I wouldn’t be sitting here blogging)

  21. Fascinating and depressing all at once…

    • Welcome to the Gimcrack Ellen. I know exactly what you mean.

      • Why thank you. Although I have been lurking around here for a while… (For some reason, that suddenly brought up the image of a baby alligator having a swim, don’t know why).

  22. I’m fascinated by the woman wrestler who slept with snakes. This world is just full of strange people.

  23. I wouldn’t mind marrying a man with the last name of Leopard.

  24. whats the obsession with strange or protected animals among some people?
    in Doha, we saw a rich arab with a cheetah at his front seat, while waiting at a traffic junction. his window was down.
    who keeps and brings a cheetah into public areas.

  25. Can we collaborate on my next book? The story is much improved by your additions.

    Yeah, I found this googling myself, how else.

    Jennie

    • Jennie! I LOVE your book, am 77% of the way through it on my Kindle and can’t believe how exciting it is!

      I even went to my local bookshop yesterday to see if they had a hard copy but it doesn’t appear to be available in Australia yet?

      • In thanks for this multimedia Meisterstück I’ll send you a hardcover gratis, just contact me via my site w your address.

  26. I will now try processed cheese product for the first time ever. Thanks, Good Nurse.

  27. Yes we did bring an alligator home from Fla. in the ’60s.
    When it would escape from the aquarium, it would hide under the dining room buffet and bark like a dog, when it wasn’t hissing.
    My father eventually tired of the creature’s antics and “set it free.”
    It’s progeny are rumored to be happily lounging in the sewers of New York city

  28. That’s a pretty cute bush baby…


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