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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel Monkey

Blog (2010)

December 9, 2010: Iguanas take heat for disappearing rare butterfly, but remain off Reptiles of Concern list*

For a while, it looked like the Green Iguana was going to be banned from the pet trade in Florida. After evaluating the impact of the Green Iguana on the Florida environment, however, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has recommended that the popular pet not be added to the state list of Reptiles of Concern. Unlike Burmese Pythons and Nile Monitor lizards, Green Iguanas do not pose a danger to humans. And according to the FWC, their impact on the environment has been minimal.

Tell that to your neighbor after his bougainvillea has been devoured.

FWC reports that the only documented ecological impact of the Green Iguana in the state is in Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys. The park is home to an endangered species of butterfly, and the iguanas appear to be eating their principal source of food, nickerbean blossoms.

Miami Blues were once plentiful in South Florida, but the population declined rapidly during the 1980s with ongoing habitat loss and pesticide use. The pretty butterfly was believed to be extinct after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. Then a population was discovered in 1999 in Bahia Honda.

No Miami Blues have been seen since last January, neither caterpillars nor adult butterflies. Environmentalists are blaming the unusually cold dry weather (and last January featured record-breaking cold snaps), as well as mismanagement of the protection of the rare species by the state. And there are some who blame the Green Iguana.

It would have made sense if FWC had banned future purchase of these reptiles as pets. After all, there are so many iguanas on the loose, who needs one in a cage in the living room? But we can hope that the FWC does decide to regulate ownership of a species that has proven troublesome and controversial in Florida. FWC may yet institute possession requirements including online training for owners and licensing. This will reduce impulse purchases of the cute baby reptiles in the future.

This year's winter weather may further reduce the Green Iguana population, which was hit hard by last winter's cold.

*Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, "Green Iguana Evaluation," December 2010; Tom Palmer, "Iguanas and endangered species," www.theledger.com, November 22, 2010; Dennis Ollie, "Who killed all the Miami Blues?" American Butterflies, Fall 2010, pp. 4-14.

December 6, 2010: Wild boar on the loose in Coral Springs*

Bears and otters have been bothering Florida residents lately, emerging in suburban neighborhoods where wild animals do not belong. But at least these two species are native to the state.

In Coral Springs, a non-native boar has been spotted on Sample Road and the Sawgrass Expressway. (Wild boar are also called wild pigs or feral pigs.) The huge animal weighs an estimated 200 to 250 pounds, but it is fast, darting away when approached by humans. Although police are warning area residents to call 911 and keep their distance, the poor boar may be more scared than the people who see a pig wandering down busy highways.

A local trapper has been hired to find the boar, and he is using cracked corn and molasses to lure his prey. The trapper has postulated that the boar wandered off from his pack in the Everglades, and is lost.

Certainly any wild boar is lost when it finds itself in an urban setting. The species is not native to the Everglades either, however. Pigs were shipped to Florida centuries ago for domestication and hunting, and the animals have been escaping into the wild ever since. The state classifies wild pigs legally as wildlife so that they can be hunted, but only on private property (with permission) or in wildlife management areas (in season with the required permits).

If you spot a wild boar on the road or in your area, report your sighting to area police or Animal Control. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, wild boar can be found in all 67 counties. They'll eat just about anything, and have few predators. If threatened they stand their ground, and their tusks can prove dangerous to humans and dogs.

*Lisa J. Huriash, "Trapper continues search for wild boar roaming Coral Springs," Sunsentinel.com, November 30, 2010

December 1, 2010: Coyotes Scare Florida Residents*

In Clermont, coyotes walk down neighborhood streets and dash though backyards. They snatch family pets and carry off outdoor cats. In Gainesville, the eerie howling of coyotes can be heard at night. In Parkland, anxious residents are filing a continuous stream of coyote complaints.

Coyotes are not native to Florida. Members of the dog family, the Canis iatrans is native to the American West. During the 1920s, avid Florida hunters nearly wiped out the native Red Wolf population. They imported coyotes to add to the hunt, and the adaptable animals thrived.

Coyotes are generalists and can survive in various ecosystems, eating a wide variety of foods. They can be found in rural areas, in marshland like the Everglades, as well as near urban and suburban developments where they can take full advantage of the proximity to humans. Coyotes will eat livestock, fruit and vegetables, grains and grasses, rodents and roadkill. They will scavenge in garbage cans and devour domestic pets. They drive farmers and ranchers nuts, and outcompete Florida’s native wild animals for food and territory. They eat sea turtle eggs, which annoys environmentalists. Coyotes do not fear humans, their only real predator in the state.

Although the coyotes have been here for decades, the size of their population and range have emerged as a relatively new issue. In 1983, coyotes were found in 18 Florida counties. Now, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, they can be found in all 67 counties. In unknown numbers, they are seeking food sources in our neighborhoods.

Coyotes can transmit diseases to humans including rabies and various parasites. If you spot one in your neighborhood, keep pets and kids inside and report your sighting to Animal Control.

*Kimberly C. Moore, "The howling: Coyote sightings on rise in city," Gainesville Sun, October 28, 2010; Heather Sorentine, "Coyotes causing concern in Clermont neighborhood," Central Florida News 13, August 11, 2010; Michael Citron, "Coyotes spotted in the City of Parkland," www.parklandparrot.com, July 21, 2010; Susan Cocking, "Florida tries to fend off wily coyotes," Miami Herald, March 9, 2010

November 6, 2010: Florida not the only state with exotic pets on the loose*

An urban legend materialized last summer in New York City when an alligator was discovered hiding under a car in the Astoria section of Queens. The baby gator was captured and brought to an animal rescue center in Brooklyn. Within 24 hours, two other non-native reptiles arrived at the city rescue center: a black and white tegu and a very large iguana.

This unusual series of animal captures is not proof that the urban legend of reptiles living in the New York City sewer system is true. It is more likely that an irresponsible pet owner abandoned the three unwanted reptiles, allowing the poor animals to run through the streets of the Big Apple. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

New York is not the most dangerous state to live in if you’re afraid of being attacked by someone’s exotic pet. Not surprisingly, Florida has the distinction of being the state with the most recorded episodes involving wild pets. According to data compiled by Born Free USA, Florida has experienced 43 episodes since 1990 in which a human was hurt or killed by a non-native pet. Texas ranks second with 19 incidences; New York third with 18; California fourth with 16; Alabama and Ohio fifth with 14.

In September, after a pet bear killed a resident, Ohio instituted a statewide ban on exotic animal ownership. The Governor has introduced new rules outlawing as pets large or dangerous wild animals. The new regulations allow current exotic pet owners to keep their pets but not to breed them. And, if the state thinks that owners are not following safety standards, their pets will be taken away.

Ohio is one of several states rethinking the laws regarding ownership of wild animals. Urban legends or not, exotic animals do not belong in our city streets. We need to respect our wildlife, allowing animals to live in their natural habitats where they belong.

Jen Doll, "Freaky reptile invasion of New York City," The Village Voice, August 24, 2010; Julie Carr Smyth, "Some state laws are lax on exotic pets," Boston.com, September 5, 2010; Steve Bennish, "Ohio to ban exotic animal ownership," Middletown Journal, September 4, 2010

October 30, 2010: Florida pet owners continue to dump exotic snakes in dangerous places*

Over the past few weeks, large non-native snakes abandoned by their owners have been discovered by Florida residents. In each case, nobody was hurt.

On October 8, an elderly couple cleaning out their garage in urban Orlando found a strange box. Inside lay a massive 5 1/2-foot long Burmese Python. The couple called 911. Animal Control officers removed the docile snake, obviously a domesticated pet. Who would dump a big snake in somebody else's garage?

Less than a week later, police in Palm Bay responded to reports of a snake in a public trash can. The 70- to 80-pound Boa Constrictor was rescued by county Animal Services. The snake had to have been placed there by someone, otherwise the animal would have tipped the can over while climbing inside.

Last weekend, Gatorland held its second annual Pet Amnesty Day. A total of 21 exotic animals were turned over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, including several large exotic snakes. Adoptive homes will be found for these animals.

The state of Florida requires exotic snakes to be permitted for legal ownership. Housing unpermited exotic snakes is a serious offense punishable by fines and/or jail time. However, there are no penalties for surrendering an unpermited snake at state-sponsored Pet Amnesty Days. These events are held regularly in many Florida cities and are free.

*"Couple finds 'monster' Burmese python in garage," WESH.com, October 8, 2010; J.D. Gallop, "Boa constrictor found in trash can in Palm Bay," Florida Today, October 14, 2010; Dewayne Bevil, "21 animals surrendered on Gatorland's Pet Amnesty Day," October 25, 2010

October 6, 2010: Where do Florida’s many exotic pets come from?

Ever wonder how wild animals from Africa and South America, Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands end up in a cage or aquarium in your neighbor's home? Some are bred in the state by animal dealers. Others are imported legally from other states or countries.

But did you know that animal smuggling is the third largest black market trade, only exceeded by drug and weapons trafficking? Since there is such demand now in the US for exotic wildlife pets, the sales of non-native animals has exploded into a multibillion dollar industry.

Sally Kneidel, PhD, the "Green Living, Green Traveling" blogger, visited an open market in Peru. There she took photos of wild animals for sale, some tied to posts or cages and others lying in cages without food and water. Most of these animals were juveniles, their mothers killed so the babies could be sold at market. Pet buyers and dealers prefer to sell juveniles who are still cute and sweet.

At the open market, baby tamarins were selling for only $1.60. Tamarins are small monkeys of the rain forests of Central and South America. Also for sale were a sloth, a Spider Monkey, marmosets, and a wide variety of parrots including hatchlings so young their feathers had yet to grow in.

Once purchased at open market, live wild animals are typically smuggled out of their native country. Meat, eggs, fish, and animal parts used as medicinals are sold to locals and keep the local economy alive. Animals sold as pets go elsewhere, making considerable profits for people of other nations. The US is the primary consumer of smuggled wildlife, and a network of pet dealers sell wild animals at auctions, online, or in trade magazines. Tamarin babies can be purchased for around $3000. That’s quite a markup.

Wildlife is a natural resource, used by native peoples throughout history to support themselves and their families. Poverty and destruction of habitat have driven native peoples to deplete their natural resources, while doing little to help their economic situation.

It is best if we refuse to participate in this destructive system. In Florida, parrots, monkeys, and other exotic wildlife on the loose are a sad testament to the undesirable results of selling non-native animals as pets.

Take a look at Dr. Kneidel’s striking photos of animals for sale at a market on the Amazon River:

September 30, 2010: South Florida not the only home for exotic pets on the loose*

Earlier in the month, a 3-foot long Nile Monitor lizard was spotted slinking around the Dogs for Life Off-Leash Park in Vero Beach. Animal Control was called in to capture the African reptile. Sadly, the lizard was euthanized.

These exotic lizards are not native to the US, and they can reach an adult length of more than 6 feet. The giant reptiles are carnivores and they have the sharp fangs to prove it. On their native continent, the monitor lizard is known to feast on small mammals the size of cats and dogs. Here, a large reptile like this can outcompete many of our native animals for food and territory.

For these reasons, we do not want Nile Monitors on the loose in our neighborhoods.

The Animal Control officer who captured the Nile Monitor in Vero reported trapping two others on the loose around town during the previous 18 months. One could speculate that the three were released by an irresponsible pet owner, or that a breeder was abandoning the growing reptiles he or she was unable to sell. Nile Monitor lizards are currently regulated by the state of Florida with standards for ownership including permitting and use of an identification chip.

Farther north, a Pet Amnesty Day was held at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens on September 25. Area residents brought in a variety of non-native animals they could no longer care for. Unpermitted pets did not result in fines, as the state would rather have residents donate their exotic pets than abandon them. The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens accepted unwanted tarantulas, an albino python, and an African spurred tortoise, among other pets. Homes will be found for these incredible animals, beautiful creatures that just do not belong in the state of Florida.

*Carolyn Scofield, "Nile Monitor found in Vero Beach dog park," www.wptv.com, September 14, 2010; "Alternative Pet Amnesty Day offers options to pet owners," www.myfwc.com/NEWSROOM, September 21, 2010; Will Dickey, "Pet Amnesty Day photos," Florida Times Union, September 25, 2010

September 1, 2010: Exotic snakes pose various dangers in Florida*

Last week, a Florida resident was bitten by his pet snake, an 18-inch Gaboon Viper. When the officer from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission arrived at the scene, the house had been evacuated and the snake was believed to be on the loose inside the home.

Fortunately, the snake was found inside the aquarium it was kept in--without a cover. Such housing for this venomous African snake is inappropriate and does not meet the minimum standards of care required by the state.

The Tampa man had been violating other safety regulations as well, and has been charged with 8 second-degree misdemeanor offenses. These include the unlawful possession of a venomous reptile, because the pet owner had no permit for his snake. He also failed to post warning signs about his poisonous pet; did not have the snake microchipped; and did not maintain the required records for ownership of a venomous reptile.

Each of the 8 counts is punishable by up to $500 and/or 60 days in jail. Possession, care, and sale of venomous reptiles are highly regulated in the state of Florida. The punishments, however, are not as severe as a fatal bite. Gaboon Vipers have long fangs, and their bites deliver a lot of venom. People do die from these bites. For this reason, the Tampa man was lucky. He was able to drive himself to a local hospital for proper treatment.

Another pet snake incident occurred last week in Sebastian, where a woman feeding her 12-foot albino Burmese Python was bitten on the hand. Her husband rushed her to the local hospital for treatment, while local animal control officers went to the home and removed the snake.

Burmese Pythons are not venomous, but the woman reported that her snake had constricted her arm. Pythons can kill humans by constriction. Last summer, a Florida child died from an attack by a pet Burmese Python.

Not only dangerous while alive, exotic snakes on the loose in Florida can be hazardous after they are dead. Research by the US Geological Survey revealed toxic levels of mercury in the tail meat of Burmese Pythons captured in the Everglades. Tissue samples demonstrated levels five times greater than the mercury levels found in Everglades alligators, and many times the amounts found in area fish. Because of the mercury contamination, none of these animals are safe for human consumption.

Mercury accumulates in tissue in ever greater amounts as it moves up the food chain. Since pythons are at the top of the food chain, they are bioaccumulating very large amounts of this toxic metal. Eating meat contaminated by high levels of mercury can cause illness and disease in humans.

It would seem prudent for us to allow the world’s most beautiful snakes to thrive unmolested in their natural environments, instead of exploiting them as pets and, even worse, letting them loose.

*FWC, "Pit viper bite victim charged with wildlife law violations," FWC News, www.myfwc.com, August 27, 2010; Lamaur Stancil, "Sebastian woman hospitalized after pet python bites her," Treasure Coast Palm, August 26, 2010; Rebecca Kessler, "Mercury keeps invasive pythons off the menu," www.livescience.com, August 31, 2010

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New book:

Iguana Invasion! Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

by Virginia Aronson and Allyn Szejko

Available at your local bookseller, Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and Pineapple Press.

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