The Kingsnake of Queens
From newyorker.com, April 2017
Jerry Kruse had a reputation for selling sick snakes. In the honor-bound world of herpetoculturalists, or reptile collectors, that was a bad enough sin, but Kruse was guilty of worse. In March of 2011, he announced on Facebook that he planned to breed several Oregon zonatas—shorthand for California mountain kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata) caught in the Oregon wild—and sell their offspring. He included a photo of the parent animals, showing off their vivid red, black, and yellowish bands. Kruse’s fellow-collectors no doubt knew that state and federal laws made capturing and keeping the zonatas an offense. When they inquired online about the snakes’ legal status, Kruse first attempted a lie, saying that he had received them from a friend who had a permit to own them; later, he deleted the ad and photo altogether. But word had already spread through the tight-knit kingsnake community. “Everyone who saw that post was, like, Whoa, red flag,” Special Agent Paul Montuori, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told me recently. “They sort of called him out.” At least one of the herpers also tipped off the F.W.S., which is how Montuori got involved. He soon undertook an investigation, dubbed Operation Kingsnake. Ultimately, after three years, he would expose a twelve-state ring of reptile traffickers, much of it radiating from Kruse’s condo in Queens.
When the term “herpetoculture” came into prominence, in the nineteen-eighties, it was meant to distinguish the activities of herpers, whose interest in reptiles transcends standard pet-keeping, from those of herpetologists, who study the animals professionally. Kruse, like most herpers, was a hobbyist. He made his living as a social worker and spent his free time online, chatting with other collectors and breeders. Herpers are fond of jargon, Montuori said, which often made deciphering e-mails and Facebook messages between Kruse and his cohort a problem. Zonatas, for instance, are sometimes known simply as “zs.” “Wc” is code for “wild-caught,” “hots” are venomous species, and “het,” an abbreviation of “heterozygous,” indicates that a snake carries a recessive, and often desirable, trait, such as albinism or uncommon patterning. Though herpers use this lexicon partly to flaunt their own prowess, Montuori explained, they also favor it because it keeps conversations within the group. “They like that outsiders don’t understand the lingo,” he said. Jeff Barringer, who founded and runs the seminal snake forum and classified site kingsnake.com, told me that this insularity runs deep. “The venomous people are a group,” he said. “And within the venomous group, you’ve got people that keep elapids, the cobra species, and you got people that keep crotalids, the rattlesnake species. They don’t always mix.”
The U.S. reptile industry generates a billion dollars a year in revenue, according to an estimate from 2009, but very few herpers make substantial money from the trade, lawfully or otherwise. The snakes that Kruse and his network dealt in cost relatively little—two hundred dollars on average, according to Montuori. For them, the real draw was rarity. “Everyone wants to find a unicorn,” Barringer said. He cited the example of the corn snake, a handsome constrictor that feeds mostly on rodents. “Florida can supply us with corn snakes for the next billion years,” Barringer said, but since New Jersey has “a real hard-on” for its native wildlife, “having a corn snake from New Jersey, where it’s illegal to catch them, adds some mystique to that corn snake that wasn’t there.” Though Kruse specialized in zonatas, which are not indigenous to the eastern United States, he also took an interest in local fauna, particularly if it was legally off-limits.
One of Kruse’s favorite hunting grounds was the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a herping mecca teeming with corn snakes and northern pine snakes. He made frequent trips there, as did another collector, Michael Collalto. “They were out there most weekends during the season, looking for whatever snake they were targeting,” Montuori said. “They were hitting it really hard.” Collalto had a penchant for finding and catching the animals, Kruse for getting them to eat in captivity and for incubating the eggs they sometimes laid. Often he would put the snakes in unmarked packages and ship them to his buddies on the West Coast in exchange for ones he couldn’t find locally. Other times he kept them for himself. When, in the spring of 2013, Montuori finally met Kruse, visiting him in the condo where he lived with his wife and kids, he was astonished to find that Kruse stored his collection in a closet. Inside were nearly thirty snakes. “The snakes had been in the wild their whole life,” Montuori told me. “And then, all of a sudden, they were in this closet in Queens. It’s not going to go well, you know?”
Montuori and his colleagues at the Justice Department began prosecuting Kruse and the other herpers in August of 2015. This past January, Collalto was found guilty in federal court of four counts of transporting illegal wildlife. Kruse, meanwhile, is on probation, having pleaded guilty to thirteen counts of unlawfully collecting, transporting, and receiving fifty-nine snakes between 2008 and 2012. (Kruse denied an interview request; Collalto’s lawyer did not respond to multiple e-mails.) In the wake of the Operation Kingsnake busts, herpers have shown little sympathy for Kruse. The consensus is that he deserved to get caught for hustling illegal snakes in plain view, on social media, and for making the community look bad—a particular irritation for collectors who operate within the law.
One of these virtuous herpers, a forty-year veteran of the reptile industry named Ken Foose, owns an exotic-pet store in Las Vegas. When I spoke with him recently, he lamented the bad rap that snake lovers often get. “We are not freaks,” he said. “A lot of us are geeks, and a lot of us are nerds, but we’re not freaks.” Herping is the perfect hobby for introverts, he added. “You go home and play with your snakes and no one comes over.” But, for some reason, he said, “We’re all seen as retarded criminals. And we’re not.” Still, occasionally, people like Kruse come along, seeking fame or notoriety. Foose himself is a minor celebrity among herpers; at one point, he had twenty-five hundred snakes in his house. But, he said, “If you take your finger and your thumb and you put them about an inch apart, that’s the field I’m a rock star in.” If you were then to spread your arms out as far as possible, that would be the rest of the world. “No one gives a shit about me,” Foose said. “No one cares. But you get these guys with these big heads, because they want to be a rock star.”