Right now monitor lizards from Malaysia are padding around DeLand on clawed, scaly feet. Poke a stick under a bush in Orlando's Conway neighborhood and you might turn up a napping peacock. South American monk parrots have found their way to Kissimmee, and oblivious chickens cluck outside a Popeye's in Oviedo. The roughly 600 macaque monkeys hanging around Silver Springs defoliate trees and rob birds' nests, stomping through an environment not meant for them, wreaking havoc like frat boys with the run of a summer beach house.
So frequent are these stories of unusual, uprooted and bewildered animals that we hardly take notice anymore. (Except, maybe, in the irony of the chickens.) After all, Central Florida is brimming with bizarre things that are out of place and far from home: Splendid China's half-mile replica of the Great Wall, Disney's Wilderness Lodge fireplaces roaring in July, Church Street Station's Norwegian-speaking visitors snapping pictures of each other in front of Brookstone's. Why should the fauna -- oftentimes pets gone AWOL -- be any less foreign?
What's weird, though, is that people who welcome these wild creatures and bring them into their homes are constantly surprised when they don't act like members of the family. Just last week, a 80-pound python put the squeeze on an 18-month-old toddler in Lake County. Three days later, a two-foot lizard appeared in an Orlando neighborhood, was captured, and then disappeared again, along with four two-day-old kittens.
We wonder what this stuff is doing here, but ours is only a glancing, part-time curiosity. Policing their presence, however, is full-time work for a few who know that unusual pets can not only get out of hand, but they also can get out of the house and never come back. Which is why, they suspect, the DeLand police had to shoot a five-foot-long monitor lizard hanging out in a tree.
As wildlife inspectors for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tom Quinn and Rick Brown spend every day around weird animals, keeping tabs on the dangerous or rare wildlife that's housed, bred and sold in eye-popping quantity in Central Florida. They've seen turtles galore, tropical fish that look computer-enhanced, crocodile farms where you'd least expect them, wolves and cougars and pythons and color-splashed birds from warm, tiny islands we all wish we lived on.
But they have not seen so much that they've lost the ability to be surprised, as when someone called about a little gator across a field and it turned out to be a huge Nile crocodile. Or the time Brown walked into a room full of 1,000 venomous snakes kept by a DeLand man who sells their venom. Or the occasion when a tiger leaned up against its new cage and the bars bowed out three feet, leaving Brown staring at a big gap -- a tiger-sized gap -- at his feet.
Quinn and Brown are not usually caught up in the sexy world of smuggling. Instead, they spend their days making unannounced calls on people who have licenses to care for such wildlife, and they've agreed to bring me along on visits in Sumter County, one of 12 counties the pair patrols as sole inspectors for the central region. It's a job they share with 11 wildlife inspectors statewide who keep an eye on anyone who buys, sells, possesses or exhibits wildlife -- more than 15,000 license holders, about a third of whom are in the central region and encompass everything from Gatorland to pet stores to the self-employed chimp breeder to the eccentric loner who keeps wolves in her yard.
Our first stop is Savage Kingdom, a feline breeding operation about 45 minutes west of Orlando in Center Hill that's run by Robert Baudy, a man with gleaming eyes, a French accent and a throaty, Yosemite Sam laugh. Eight-foot elephant tusks decorate his heavily curtained living room. The felines he breeds are the big kind, 30 or 40 tigers, leopards and cougars, including what Brown calls "a Bengal tiger that has nothing but a bad attitude."
Baudy, who for years crisscrossed the world performing a tiger act, sells the cats to zoos and trainers and sometimes arranges traveling shows. He might sell a baby white tiger for $10,000, but overall, "It's a diminishing business," he sighs.
Quinn and Brown make their rounds of the cats, eventually reaching Vesolya, the surly Bengal tiger, who springs on her hind legs against the cage and lets out a resounding roar. "She's not that bad," shrugs Baudy. "She's protective of her home. You notice how they leap when you turn your back?" To demonstrate he turns away and the tiger springs and roars. I involuntarily step back, and Baudy laughs, clearly pleased with this shudder-producing little trick.
Strolling around the cages, Baudy tells a story about some emus he was given -- well, about one emu in particular that stuck its head through the bars of a tiger's cage. "Like lightning -- zwoom. Decapitated! Ha, ha, ha!"
For all his experience, Baudy has had mishaps. "You see that there?" He shows a scar on his hand as big as a car key. "That's a jaguar." Later Quinn mentions to me that a few years back a cat escaped and killed one of Baudy's helpers.
The precariousness of exotic animals is exactly why some people are drawn to them. They're elusive, generally uncooperative, a chunk of pure flashing instincts. I don't think it's an accident that during my day with Quinn and Brown I meet only one woman, an assistant at Baudy's place. While domesticated animals provide company on the sofa, a facsimile of love and reliable eye contact, exotics are more like collectible cars or high-end computers: The display is primarily about mastering the minutiae and showing off the oddities, and although some women get caught up these things, it's mostly a guy thing.
In the end, though, the thick sense of a wild animal's barely contained threat is what lingers. I can't help but notice this more and more as the day progresses -- like when Quinn and Brown take me to Mitch Brynes' place, and we're standing in a small cement-block garage surrounded by dozens of venomous snakes: Borneo blood pythons, green mambas, West African bush vipers, Egyptian cobras. Brynes, the proprietor of Diamond Reptile Breeders, raises and sells slithery things from his home in Bushnell.
The venomous snakes coil themselves in plastic containers the size of suitcases, and their combined hissing resembles a concerto of bicycle pumps. Several stacks of containers are piled to the ceiling, and on many a taped-on piece of paper says "hot" -- meaning highly poisonous.
Brynes starts unstacking some of the containers, like a stock boy in the canned-veggies aisle of Publix, until he finds one he wants. "Look at this," he says. "It's a rare one. I just happened to get this one." He takes off the lid and a six-foot colorless monacle cobra rears up out of crumpled newspaper and sways gently. I'm distinctly unnerved staring at this creature, frankly speechless at the fact that five seconds ago Brynes took the lid off a box holding a cobra, and desperate to know how quickly a cobra can cross six feet of cement floor. At the same time I manage to register how beautiful it is: Ever-so-slightly-pinkish ivory in color, the snake looks like a porcelain statue, except for the constant swaying and low hissing. Brynes, who hopes to sell this creature for $5,000, stares down at it for a while in admiration before replacing the lid. Then he opens a few more containers, pointing out particularly unusual colorings or markings; other cobras sway and more hot snakes are picked up for our benefit. The asking price for most of these guys, according to Brynes' website, is $75 to $400.
"You got anything exotic in the house?" Brown asks Brynes after making the rounds of the Tupperware condos in the garage. Nothing in the house, says Brynes, and the rest of his stock is "nothing major," he shrugs, giving a strolling emu a friendly scratch. He leads the inspectors to several pens of turtles. Most lovely are the spotted ones (asking price: $85), which appear to have been gently rained on by deep-red paint. He reaches into a few inches of water and lifts a fretful looking alligator snapping turtle ($25) out of a bin. Its jaws look like they could crack walnuts. Quinn explains that the turtle needs access to some dry land, too. Nearby, a few smooth-fronted caimans ($350), a South American member of the crocodile family, stretch their heads clear out of the water and watch as Brown explains that the fence around them needs to be higher. They look like dark-bronze statues. At least they don't hiss or sway.
Florida led the nation by enacting wildlife regulations in the early '70s, a reaction to complaints from tourists about all the roadside attractions displaying things like skinny, matted, moping tigers. A combination of a law-enforcement officer and a biologist, a wildlife inspector makes sure that caged animals have enough room and that there's no chance for jailbreaks. This makes the animals, the owner and the owner's neighbors all sleep easier -- to a point. You can't blame anyone unable to shake the vision of a hurricane blowing apart a little garage full of Tupperware containers holding masses of hot snakes.
A wildlife inspector is "the best job on the planet," enthuses Brown, who's held the job only since October. "You get to play with all the critters, then leave. Someone else feeds them and cleans their cages." That cuddly description doesn't do justice to the essential strangeness of the wildlife industry in Florida. Sure, Quinn and Brown see that permit-holding owners comply with the regulations. For example, class I "dangerous" wildlife can't be kept as pets, and have regulations governing their exhibition; class II "potentially dangerous" animals require the owner to pass a test, pay a $100 permit fee and meet specific cage requirements. But less law-abiding people duck those rules, smuggle protected species and hunt down endangered wildlife.
Fish and Wildlife Commission officers have encountered Cuban Amazon parrots traded for computers (300 parrots were seized). They rescued a protected bear being sold at an Okeechobee auction. They found a man in east Orlando keeping a cougar in his back yard. ("A guy with a license gave it to him," says Quinn. "It's kind of like laundering, if you will." ) Then there's the 49 highly venomous sea snakes that came through Miami a few months back and very much needed to be tracked down very quickly -- posing a threat not only to the everyday public but to tourism. Quinn thinks about those snakes and muses on all the people who come here to fish, snorkel and go to the beach: "Could you imagine the adverse economic impact if sea snakes were to escape and propagate?"
Non-native species that are either endangered or a threat get smuggled in, like drugs. Ask a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent why heroin's glutting Central Florida, then ask a Fish and Wildlife officer why the exotic-animal industry thrives here, and you'll hear many of the same reasons: rapid population growth, proximity to Central America and the Caribbean, Miami International's impossibly high volume of import traffic. The worldwide trade in illegal animals is an estimated $6 billion industry, second only to the drug trade.
The state's climate helps. "Here in Florida, almost anything can survive," says Brown simply.
Like celebrities, certain animals become trendy, the Leo DiCaprios and Matt Damons of the animal kingdom. Last year it was sugar gliders, an African flying squirrel. Before that, hedgehogs. Reptiles magazine will highlight some breed (picture a boa centerfold, or a lizard with a come-slither look), and people who read Reptiles will start clamoring for the featured creature.
But there are those who want precisely what nobody else has. The connoisseur, flush with cash and wanting the crawly equivalent of a Porsche or a Picasso, won't settle for a ho-hum suburbanite like a monitor lizard. The ravenous collector of exotica who's willing to disregard the law might hook up with someone like Tom Crutchfield of Bushnell, one of the largest reptile importers in the U.S., who in 1995 was imprisoned for smuggling endangered Fiji Island iguanas. Two years ago Crutchfield fled to Belize to avoid another arrest, but Belize tossed him back, and this past April he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for helping to sneak rare snakes from Madagascar into the country. Quinn has had a few run-ins with Crutchfield: "I took him to court in Bushnell three times and lost every time," he sighs. Many of Crutchfield's critters went to Gatorland when the legal side of his business, a crocodile farm, got liquidated.
But collectors will more likely hook up with specialized breeders who operate safely within the law. Those specialized breeders have another advantage for the collector: "These guys are designing their own animals," says Wayne Hill, a Winter Haven breeder who for 10 years has staged the National Reptile Breeders Expo here in Orlando, billed as the largest reptile meeting in the world. Breeders isolate traits like albinism and make them dominant, or create unique stripes and zigzags. "If they occurred in the wild, they wouldn't survive," says Hill of the resultant animals. "But man says, 'This is neat.'"
Hill's expo, to be held this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 14-15, at the Radisson Twin Towers, includes 450 display tables and dealers from 20 countries presenting all captive-born creatures. Brynes, the guy with the porcelain cobra and the bronze caimans, is planning to look around the expo but not pay to set up his own table: "Some people make good money there, but I have too much of the common stuff," he explains. He knows of people who in past years made $40,000 during the expo's two days. "The guy with the first albino Burmese -- he made his millions. Now you can pick them up for $60." Brynes, who shrugs that he's "eking out a living," was offered $7,000 for a rare snake but turned it down for sentimental reasons: He nursed the snake back to health and would like to keep her around, to see if she reproduces. "If you're too much in it for the money," he says, "you get ruthless. You don't care about the animal."
Most of the wildlife trade relies on a network -- contacts made through trade shows or, more and more, the Internet. "If you have wildlife or wildlife products," explains Quinn, "somebody will buy it. You just have to find a dealer."
At the end of the day Quinn goes home to two dogs. "They're always happy to see me," he says. "They're not stuck in a cage where if I went in, I'd be afraid they'd eat me."; ;
Brown has no pets. When I ask what's on his schedule for the next day, he mentions some complaints in Osceola County -- somebody's going around bragging their dog is 90 percent wolf, and the neighbors are none too pleased. "When I show up with my citation book," he predicts, "it's not a wolf anymore. It's little Fluffy."
Then he asks if I was taught how to identify a venomous snake. He mentions traits --– for example, harmless snakes generally have thin heads and round eyes. "But we've got exotics from other countries, venomous snakes, and they've got round eyes," he says. The lesson: There's a lot of strange stuff around that doesn't fit the expected rules, and you never know who's dumping what outside their back door. Because those monitor lizards didn't make it to DeLand on their own.