Atlantic City Press: You Can Go Home Again

The AC Press ran this story today.  Writer Juliet Fletcher focused on my experience growing up and laughed when I told her how important reptiles were to us as children.  “I’ve heard that from other people here,” she said. 

On the trail of animal smugglers
A childhood passion for reptiles sets author on the trail of ‘The Lizard King’
By JULIET FLETCHER Staff Writer, 609-272-7251
(Published: Wednesday, March 18, 2009)

When Bryan Christy used to trade reptiles between his friends in Millville, he knew how to hold them, show them off and learned the values of creatures as if they were baseball cards. As he put it, “A pickerel frog got you a box turtle.”

But as his prize snake, a pet Burmese python, grew to a staggering 14 feet, he never stopped to ask where such reptiles hailed from.

“I had no idea,” he said Monday. “That was the great unanswered mystery.”

His first book, “The Lizard King,” due in paperback this summer, goes to the heart of that question, tracking the story of a well-known animal dealer, Mike van Nostrand, and a multimillion-dollar ring of traffickers who bring in illegal creatures, including rare and endangered species to the U.S. But Christy, who lived in southern New Jersey until he moved away for school, explains how the urge to write the book originated with those unlikely childhood pets.

“If I could have had an alligator as a little kid, I would absolutely have bought one,” he says ruefully, after he heard a gator was found last year at a house in nearby Vineland. Close to the well-stocked pet shops of Philadelphia, where Christy now lives, southern New Jersey in the early 1970s was also the kind of place where he could head out toward woodland or ponds, finding snakes on his own.

Christy’s family still runs a prominent funeral home in Millville; his aunt, Jane Y. Christy, served until December as one of Cumberland County’s freeholders. Bryan’s reptile habit soon made way for other youthful occupations including a stint as mortician’s assistant.

“I left that spark behind when I went to college,” he says now, recalling how he parted ways with the python.

But he returned to Millville at 32 in 1995, when his father died. Jettisoning a career in international trade law in D.C., he moved into the old funeral home to write full time. Going back and forth with a magazine editor over writing about the trade in animals, he made a snap decision one evening to jump in his car to follow the trail of a pet tiger that escaped in Florida.

“When I got there, the tiger had already been shot,” he says. But he was in an area of the U.S. most known for animal trafficking.

Learning that traders bring animals into the U.S. from parts of Asia, Christy soon set to work on an investigative profile of Mike Van Nostrand, the son of Ray Van Nostrand, who Christy says, dealt in drugs and guns as well as exotic animals. Mike Van Nostrand had continued and expanded the Hollywood, Fla.-based family business, Strictly Reptiles, where pet shoppers could buy critters while, according to law enforcement, clued-in customers could order illegally-trafficked creatures of all sorts.

Early on, Christy took a deep breath and walked into the store. With hat pulled down, Christy said he was in the market for rare reptiles.

“They gave me a coral snake to hold, extremely venomous,” he recalls. “And my hands were shaking.”

Christy’s book combines the story of Van Nostrand, who eventually cooperated with the book, with the tale of Chip Bepler, the special agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who pursued him.

Despite being bitten between the eyes by a blood python during his three-and-a-half years of research, Christy ultimately told the tale not as his adventures in the world of animal-trafficking, but as a dispassionate account of Bepler and Van Nostrand.

“What I wanted to do was write the story from two sides: a cat and a mouse,” he said. “You know, mice would always say there shouldn’t be any cats.”

Van Nostrand, who ran a large syndicate for reptiles, was not above sometimes doing some transporting himself. “He once packed 10 pythons – they were babies – into a sock, stuffed that in his underwear and took them through customs,” Christy said. But Bepler, who died unexpectedly before Christy got to meet him, had seen Nostrand convicted and sentenced to a few months in jail. The book explores how the two men moved from nemeses to an unexpected rapport. “When Bepler died, Van Nostrand came to his funeral,” Christy said. “He actually spoke at the service.”

Christy said film director David Frankel (“Marley and Me,” “Devil Wears Prada”) and Fox 2000 studios have just optioned the book. Now working on his next tale, all Christy will say is it does not return to his childhood hobby as source material. “It’s not about reptiles,” he notes.

Instead, he admits, he feels a hobbyist’s fervor as he treks the globe in search of interesting people to write about: “I’ll say that the fact that I’ll chase all the way to Asia to meet another character – that’s not so different from someone traveling to Papua New Guinea for a snake.”

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One Response to “Atlantic City Press: You Can Go Home Again”

  1. Jonathan Merritt Says:

    I used to sell reptiles from 1989-1995 and bought most of my animals from Mike. I even spent the night many times in his house when I was down in Fl