I turned to Nina, Rom's sister who had helped him start the Snake Park way back then. Did she remember anything more of Nat's animal trading? I asked. She managed to track down a book called ‘King of Nepal' by Joseph Pietri.
In 1969, almost immediately after fleeing the U.S., Nat had set himself up in Nepal, and entered into a deal with a rising rock ‘n' roll musician, Peter Kelly.
The former would ship Tibetan mastiffs in wooden crates stuffed with the finest hashish to the latter. These dogs are of dramatic size, weight and colour, and were virtually unknown in the U.S. So although the customs officials at JFK airport showed a great deal of interest in the shipment, and the drug sniffing dogs were excited by the bear-like animal, they failed to detect the contraband right under their noses. It was idiot-proof, author Pietri gloated. Focussing more on his music career, Kelly sent Pietri to Nepal to pay Nat his share of the booty.
At that time, Nat was scouring the Nepali countryside for another Nepali specialty: a Tibetan pony. Pietri says they eventually found a mean-tempered freak whose head was larger than his body. This was the “special horse” that Rom remembered!
Nat accompanied the pony overland to Bombay where it was to be put on a flight to the U.S.; Pietri had been left behind in Nepal. Bad move! In Nat's absence, Pietri cut his own deal with the former's Nepali partner, a local lama, and took over the business. Nat was not only left out in the cold, but was never to enter Nepal again.
Pietri writes that his goal was to “put a Tibetan mastiff in every major American city”, which he almost accomplished. Most of these dogs found in the U.S. today are apparently the descendants of the early drug-runners!
After several shipments, Pietri began running out of dogs, and one of the last he sent didn't take kindly to being cooped up. It managed to bite through the crate, and escape into the plane's cargo hold by the time the flight arrived in London. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals put the dog into one of their own cages, and sent it onward to the U.S. The scam was revealed when the mangled crate was burnt and the heady hash fumes threatened to intoxicate all present! But, since the dog had been sent from India, and investigations didn't lead to the kingpins in Nepal, there were no arrests.
Pietri then sent red pandas and a young rhino to the U.S. successfully. In the meantime, Nat had moved to Madras, and decided to get back into the business.
He procured two sloth bear cubs, Dora and Flora, in whose crate he embedded fifteen kg of hashish, and was caught red-handed. It appears to have been his only attempt at trading in wild animals.
Pietri indicates that Nat's obnoxious personality probably did him in. However, reading these excerpts from the book jogged Rom's memory. He remembered that Nat suspected Todd, one of Pietri's accomplices, for having ratted on him and that was how the Madras Customs nabbed him.
In the meantime, Pietri had been planning to send a shipment of two Himalayan black bears, and despite the fiasco in Madras, his contacts in the U.S. insisted that he go ahead with the deal.
When the bears arrived, the now suspicious U.S. authorities drilled holes in the cages, and found the evidence. One crate is still on display at the U.S. Customs museum in San Francisco!
Perhaps Nat didn't want anyone in Madras to know the true nature of his business, and therefore didn't brag about his celebrity connections.
Whatever his reasons, Rom and Nina remain astonished by the colourful and unsavoury history of a character they knew briefly.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)