Cold-Blooded Smuggling

The recent bust of a Hollywood importer sheds light on an illegal reptile trade that has adventurous smugglers making easy money

Van Nostrand -- who got out of prison last year, his sentence curtailed by agreeing to sell out associates (including Lawracy and Cunningham) -- refused to speak at length with New Times, though he met briefly with a reporter and shared a few observations before heeding a secretary's advice and deciding to clam up. "I was an arrogant son of a bitch," he said, leaning against a holding pen overflowing with snakes in his sprawling Stirling Road warehouse. "The feds were after me for five years," he continued. "I really thought I was untouchable. And then I got stupid and careless."

South Florida herpers (devoted reptile fanatics like to use the scientific term herpetology to describe both reptiles and amphibians) say Strictly's carelessness, and that of other Florida importers, gives a black eye to the entire reptile community. "The allure is too much for some people," says Mike Brennan, educational chair of the Sawgrass Herpetological Society, a nine-year-old group of Broward herpers that is one of 13 such groups in Florida. "There are two types of people," adds Mike's 19-year-old son, Chris, "those in it for the science and those in it for the money."

Strictly Reptiles is clearly motivated by the bottom line. Mike Van Nostrand says he doesn't even like reptiles, though at any given time his warehouse is crawling with hundreds of them. The company, which built its reputation in the late '80s by muscling in on the trade in live iguanas -- it is known as the "Iguana King" -- has long offered more of the popular lizards than anyone else in the business. The exterior of the company's headquarters is emblazoned with the head of a green iguana, and inside are stored hundreds of iguana babies, shipped in legally by third-party importers from farms in Latin America. "In the '80s if you weren't in iguanas, you weren't anybody," says Rian Gittman, a Deerfield Beach reptile retailer who got his start in importing by learning the trade from the Van Nostrands -- Mike and his father, Ray. Iguanas -- inexpensive, low-maintenance lizards -- have been the most popular reptile pet for more than 15 years. "Ray always told me iguanas are the business, period," says Gittman, who lost his import license in 1995 and wound up serving a year in prison on smuggling charges.

In light of the variety and volume available at Strictly, most everyone in the United States involved in the selling and collecting of reptiles and amphibians has at one time or another done business with the company. Even Strictly's biggest competitors -- importers like Bronx Reptile in New York, L.A. Reptile in California, and, until they shut down in 1997, Tom Crutchfield's Reptile Enterprises near Orlando -- bought from Strictly in order to add rare species to their price lists. "Strictly was always a cut above the rest," says Special Agent Bepler. "A lot of companies offered all of the bread-and-butter animals. Strictly had all that plus a lot of specialty items, like little expensive jewels that might make a pet shop stand out."

The cohesiveness of the reptile trade -- the business is tightly knit on local, national, and even international levels -- masks an inherent, often unspoken, rift. Breeders and hobbyists rarely see eye to eye with the big-money contingent, the importers and wholesalers upon whom they are dependent for new breeding stock. The two groups tolerate each other more out of economic necessity than anything else.

At the monthly reptile show held at the Red Carpet Inn, a low-rise motel on State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale, breeders bring their vibrantly hued reptile creations directly to consumers. The best of the bunch spend years perfecting color varieties that might never occur in nature, creating albino strains and bright red varieties of snakes and lizards, as well as the full spectrum of blues, greens, and yellows. "We make designer pets," says Doug Beard, a ponytailed South Miami-Dade breeder who specializes in snakes. "It's like art by God. We perfect mutations that are biologically worthless to meet the public desire to own a piece of nature."

At Red Carpet, Beard occupies one of a dozen tables laid out with reptiles and amphibians proudly advertised as "captive bred." Blue-uniformed Cub Scouts dart among the tables with boyish glee, eyeing $35 bearded geckos, $250 rhino iguanas, and $100 albino pythons. Breeders exchange gossip along with snakes and lizards -- mostly tiny snakes displayed in plastic petri dishes, which may one day grow to six, eight, or twelve feet and become the moms and pops to long lines of serpent babies. Most of the breeders have done business with Mike Van Nostrand -- he buys their surplus offspring and sells them new breeding pairs -- but few have much good to say about the man.

"Van Nostrand's a scumbag," offers one barrel-chested breeder. "If he goes back to jail, that would be an accomplishment."

"We think of them as 'Sickly Reptiles,'" adds a collector, referring to the way the company crams dozens of reptiles one on top of the other in storage bins at its warehouse.

Beard, who has bought and sold from Strictly over the years, offers a less venomous assessment. "They've been responsible for bringing in a tremendous amount of new things that breeders wouldn't otherwise have," he says. "There are a lot of great animals in collections and zoos because of these people."

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