Reptiles in plastic containers at a reptile show

The Reptile Dealer in Tiger King Has A Sketchy Past



The “infamous reptile dealer” that led Tiger King producers to film Joe Exotic was arrested for smuggling exotic animals.

Leave it to the internet to identify exotic animal smugglers! The unnamed reptile dealer at the beginning of Tiger King has been identified as Tom Crutchfield by viewers of the docuseries, which ultimately led producers to Joe Exotic’s roadside zoo.

The footage shows reptiles being sold as pets and transported in tiny plastic tubs before panning to a reptile buyer’s truck and seeing a snow leopard inside.

While Tiger King followed big cat breeders with known violations of the animal welfare act, reptile dealers such as Tom Crutchfield profit in the misery of reptiles.

Operation Chameleon

Best known for his sales of reptiles, Tom Crutchfield was one of many reptile dealers caught in violations of the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act. This five-year probe into an international exotic animal smuggling ring was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1990s. According to the department’s press release, those indicted, arrested, or prosecuted include individuals from the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Japan, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

Crutchfield, who pleaded guilty in 1999, was smuggling rare reptiles, such as the Madagascar tree boas and Madagascar ground boas into the United States. Both species face extinction in the wild due to poaching and habitat loss. Crutchfield admitted to smuggling more than 200 reptiles, including exotic turtles. 

After pleading guilty to seven felony counts, he served 30 months in prison, performed 150 hours of community service, and served three years of supervised release for conspiracy, smuggling, and violations of the Lacey Act.

Former Smuggling Conviction

Tom and Penny Crutchfield were once the largest dealers and importers of exotic reptiles in the United States, but in 1995, both were convicted for the illegal importation and intent to sell Figi banded iguanas. Tom was sentenced to 17 months in federal prison and a $10,000 fine while Penny was sentenced to one-year probation and a $2000 fine.

Suffering in Silence

There are both legal and illegal aspects of the exotic pet trade. But legality doesn’t matter; whether an animal is poached from the wild or born in captivity, legal to own or illegal - it’s all cruelty.

Reptiles, such as the snakes Crutchfield was convicted of smuggling into the US, suffer tremendously as exotic pets. In fact, at least 75% of pet snakes, lizards, tortoises, and turtles die within one year of becoming a pet.

A World Animal Protection Report, Suffering in Silence, found that more than 3 million Ball pythons have been exported from Benin, Ghana, and Togo over 45 years. Ball pythons in Europe and North America are captive bred and sold at reptile markets in conditions that fail to meet even their most basic needs.

Reptiles are sentient wild animals that can feel pleasure, distress, excitement, fear, and pain. They are frequently kept in small, minimalistic enclosures where they can’t perform basic natural behaviors, like stretch to their full length.

Ending the Exotic Pet Trade

We know people often purchase exotic pets because they’re animal lovers. Animals bring joy to our lives, so, understandably, we’d want them to be part of our homes. The simple fact is that wild animals belong in the wild, not as pets.

We should only share our homes with domesticated animals who’ve evolved over thousands of years to be our companions, and, therefore, whose needs can be completely met in that environment.

Join World Animal Protection today by pledging never to purchase a wild animal. Sign our Wildlife. Not Pets pledge today.

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