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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