Cold-Blooded Smuggling

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

In the end none of those schemes really mattered. "Rule number one on the street is you can't beat the government," says Gittman of the federal investigation that led to his downfall. "You can't win. They have too much money; they print it."

In 1995 Gittman was charged with smuggling American alligators across state lines and bringing in East African pancake tortoises hidden in false bottoms in legal shipments. "Prosecutors were out for blood," says Gittman of the ten-year sentence they tried to stick him with. "I mean it was just animals." He got a year in jail and, not faring as well as his old friend Mike Van Nostrand, lost his import business altogether.

Today Gittman is strictly legal, doing brisk business handing out Bibles while hawking all sorts of herps in clean, well-lit cages at his retail stores in Deerfield and Coral Springs. "I'm a sold-out Jesus Freak now," he says. "I'm not interested in anything else, I don't have anything else I live for. I wake up in the morning and ask God what he has planned for me."

Mike Van Nostrand, on the other hand -- out of prison and working long hours to recoup his losses -- is still dealing in enormous quantities of live reptiles and amphibians, both imported and captive-bred. As a show of good faith, he helped the government put together a sting not long ago that nabbed a 22-year-old Slovenian trying to get his start as a tortoise smuggler by bringing in, stuffed in socks, 49 baby Hermann's tortoises from Eastern Europe and offering them to Strictly. The smuggler went to jail, Van Nostrand got his home confinement reduced, and the tortoises were banished north, to the Fish and Wildlife evidence compound.

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:

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