By Francisco Alvarado
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By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
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Mike Van Nostrand has thus far been the biggest South Florida target to fall prey to what those in the reptile trade say has been a marked increase in government scrutiny, but he was not the first local importer to topple. Retired Deerfield Beach importer Rian Gittman was arrested two years before federal agents came knocking on the doors of his mentor's warehouse.
Gittman, an adrenaline junkie and former loan collector from Queens who used his fists to extract money from deadbeats, is now a self-proclaimed "Jesus freak." At a Denny's down the street from Underground Reptiles, his Deerfield shop, he polishes off a slice of chocolate pie while recalling his rapid rise as a reptile importer. He wears a big smile and a maroon T-shirt bearing a silhouette of Jesus Christ with the words CEO JC Sportswear. "It was the early '90s," he recalls. "I sat in Mike and Ray's office and I said, 'Man, Fish and Wildlife will have to smack me right out of the sky, because right now I'm a meteorite.' I wanted to smuggle as many animals as I could, as much as I could. As far as I was concerned, whatever it was I wanted to get it in, I didn't care. I didn't know anybody who had real trouble. I figured if I get caught, what are you going to do -- slap me on the wrist, make me pay a fine? I had no idea what federal court was about."
Gittman, already an amateur snake collector, had moved to South Florida from New York when he was in his early twenties, his departure hastened by a brush with death in which a hired killer stuck a revolver in his mouth and then opted to spare his life. After working a series of odd jobs, he met Mike and Ray Van Nostrand in 1990. Someone had recommended Strictly Reptiles as a good place to unload the snakes he had started collecting from the tall grasses of the Everglades. "The first time I went down there, I sold them some stuff, and they helped me package my first shipment that I sent to another guy," recalls Gittman. Around that same time, Gittman met a wild Australian reptile smuggler named Euan Edwards, a scruffy adventurer with a backpack on his back and no shoes on his feet. Edwards became Gittman's first employee.
Under the tutelage of Mike and Ray Van Nostrand -- for a while Gittman says he rented a bathroom as an office at the Strictly warehouse -- Gittman acquired enough knowledge, of both the legal and illegal trades, to strike out on his own. In 1994 he opened the Reptile Service, his own reptile import business in Deerfield Beach and with Edwards' help began bringing in thousands of snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises. Edwards became Gittman's globetrotter, braving malaria, dysentery, and Third World wars in order to track down suppliers and teach them how to properly pack shipments, both legal and illegal. His duties also included making sure payoffs -- for securing legitimate export permits -- made their way into the hands of the right foreign government officials. "In this country we think of payoffs as illegal," says Gittman. "But in other countries it's just the way they do business. Now you can't have an American guy go pay off a guy, but you give money to an Egyptian and he gives the money to another Egyptian and all of a sudden you've got your permits. That's the live-animal business; that's the way it goes."
Mike Ellard, owner of Burgundy Reptiles in Fort Myers, takes government payoffs one step further. Traveling on his own, he visits countries that are closed to exports under CITES and "lobbies" government officials to allow him to start sending out the first legal shipments of a given species. "You tell them how much you want to take out and that you are not going to be detrimental to the population," says Ellard, adding that many countries are arbitrarily closed to live-animal exports, even when a given species may not be endangered. "Paraguay was closed, and I got the first shipments out last year. The only problem is that, once you open a place up, within six or eight months, everybody's jumped in."
Gittman and Edwards rarely bothered waiting for a country to open up before sending out protected animals. Instead they devised ingenious new ways to get contraband reptiles past customs, including constructing false bottoms in crates of legitimate shipments and, over the course of a year's worth of mislabeled shipments, bringing in many times their quota of legal animals. (Many legal species, including iguanas, have annual import caps.) One year, for instance, Gittman brought in almost 200,000 baby iguanas -- they come in bags of 100 -- exceeding his 40,000 cap almost five times and in the process undercutting competitors who comply with shipping restrictions.
Along with smuggling, Gittman, who had invested in an iguana farm in El Salvador, discovered another, less dangerous means of increasing his profit margins: naming his own species. "I was getting in these blue iguanas," he recalls. "I changed the name. Instead of iguanas, I called them Blue Jewels, and I charged $2 more for each iguana. It worked. Every once in a while, we'd get a batch of iguanas that were electric blue because maybe the breeder fed them different food or something, and so we'd call them Electric Blue and sell them for $20 each."