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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel Monkey

Blog (2010)

March 24, 2010: Animal Planet focuses on Florida exotics*

This month, Florida has been prominently featured on two television shows about the serious problems associated with exotic pet ownership. "Fatal Attraction: Pets that Kill their Owners," a three-part series airing on Sunday nights, highlights attacks on humans by wild animals kept as pets including the massive pythons and Nile Monitor lizards found in Florida. "Killer Aliens" aired on March 14. This 2-hour documentary starred exotic pets loose in the Keys including our ever-popular pythons and the giant African rodents called Gambian Pouch Rats.

Despite the sensationalistic tenor to these Animal Planet shows, the message to the public is clear: wild animals from other parts of the world do not make good pets. And if you do have such a pet, never release it into the wild. The environmental damage is serious, and the potential for spreading diseases and threatening human safety is real. Be a responsible pet owner and a responsible neighbor.

After an unusually cold winter, Florida has seen a significant reduction in the populations of a number of bothersome tropical invaders including Green Iguanas, Burmese Pythons, Knight Anoles, and other reptiles vulnerable to temperature variation. However, not all of the animals died in the cold, and some are already breeding again. As of mid-February, only 7 Burmese Pythons had been seized by licensed hunters in the Everglades; 12 African Rock Pythons have been captured since 2009. Although state wildlife biologists estimate the non-native reptile loss at more than 50%, this still leaves thousands of exotics alive and well.

Legislation to prohibit the possession, import, breeding, and sale of several species of reptiles including the Burmese Python, African Rock Python, and Nile Monitor lizard, has been approved by a number of high-ranking government committees. If passed, bills S 318 and HB 709 may eliminate the influx of exotic reptiles to the state. However, a series of unusually cold winters will be needed to further deplete the populations still thriving in the wild.

In the Keys, where the winter temperatures were below normal but still tolerable, iguanas and pythons remain a significant issue. On Grassy Key, the population of Gambian Pouch Rats has been reduced, but mainly through efforts made by biologists from the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Research Center. Their non-native rat eradication program, a 2-year project, has not been fully successful, however. And spring is here, along with the breeding season.

*www.animaldiscovery.com; "Python permit program updates," www.myfwc.com/NEWSROOM, March 12, 2010; Tony Peacock, "Giant rats pose threat to Florida Everglades," Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, March 4, 2010; Gary W. Witmer, Nathan P. Snow, Patrick W. Burke, "Potential attractants for detecting and removing invading Gambian giant pouched rats," Pest Management Science, 66:4, 412-416, December 10, 2009

March 14, 2010: Pythons still around after cold winter*

Now that the weather is warming up in South Florida, the pythons are out sunning themselves. Marco Island has been seeing more than its share of the giant snakes. Earlier this month, a resource management specialist at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve spotted three Burmese Pythons. While he was waiting for help, the two smaller snakes escaped. The largest snake was captured, measured at around 11 feet in length, then turned over to the National Park Service.

These snakes were seen in the long grass along the side of a road near the Marco Island Executive Airport. They were not in anyone’s backyard. However, last week a 9-foot long Burmese Python was discovered by a landscaping crew behind a house on Marco Island. The huge snake was slow-moving and lethargic, so the landscapers were able to keep an eye on it while awaiting the police and an experienced trapper. The snake was netted and taken off-island by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). A spokesperson for the FWC stated that as many as 3 or 4 Burmese Pythons were being trapped each week on Marco Island and in the surrounding areas.

There is no doubt that these giant non-native reptiles can survive year-round in Florida, even when we have a winter with record-breaking cold. And unless someone is dumping their pets on Marco, the pythons are swimming to the islands from the mainland of South Florida.

*Eric Staats, "11-foot python captured at Rookery Bay," Naples News, March 5, 2010; Kelly Farrell, "9-foot python discovered in Marco Island backyard," Naples News, March 11, 2010

March 1, 2010: Lionfish a new menace in Florida Keys*

When the first escaped Lionfish was spotted off the coast of Miami in 1985, environmentalists in the Keys became concerned. They knew it was only a matter of time before the invader fish migrated in their direction, threatening Keys marine life, especially the vulnerable coral reefs.

Native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Red Lionfish has been a popular aquarium pet in the U.S. Pet owners disillusioned when their lionfish either outgrows the fish tank or stings someone with its venomous, needle-like fins sometimes decide to (illegally) dump this beautiful fish in the ocean. Since 1985, the number of emancipated pet lionfish and their offspring has increased dramatically and their range has spread to most of the eastern seaboard, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Cuba and the Turks and Caicos. The fish, their eggs and larvae, are readily swept along by the warm Gulf Stream and its currents.

And in 2009, the Red Lionfish reached the Keys.

Wildlife officials in the Keys are educating residents on the identification and safe capture of this venomous fish. Divers, fishermen, and researchers use needle-proof gloves and aquarium nets to capture as many lionfish as possible. Trained workers with special permits have already removed 40 of the invaders from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, home to the world’s third largest barrier reef. The Red Lionfish feeds on the reef-cleaning species of marine life, which results in damage to the coral reefs. These big, hungry fish will eat Florida’s native fish and outcompete them for food.

Wildlife researchers do not believe the Red Lionfish can be eradicated from their non-native range. There are too many of them now and they have adapted much too well. Last year, a fishing competition held in the Bahamas led to the capture of more than 1400 lionfish.

*Cammy Clark, "Lionfish invade Florida Keys," Miami Herald, February 8, 2010

February 23, 2010: Special hunting season for snakes invading the Everglades*

From March 8 through April 27, anyone with a hunting license and a $26 management area permit may go python hunting in the Everglades. That’s right: now you can go on safari and shoot yourself a giant snake that, weakened by the cold weather, is vulnerable and defenseless against humans toting firearms.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is offering hunters a "special chance" to capture invasive reptiles in three wildlife management areas in South Florida: Everglades and Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land, and Rotenberger. Although the small game hunting season is closing, FWC has announced a "specially created season" to encourage enthusiasts to come kill off the non-native snakes.

Yesterday, a group of interested hunters attended a workshop given by the FWC and reptile industry experts. Hunters learned how to identify, stalk, capture and remove Burmese Pythons from the wild. Hunters learned that they will be able to use shotguns, rimfire rifles, and pistols, as well as nets and snares. Only centerfire rifles cannot be employed. Hunting will not be allowed in Everglades National Park.

All invasive snakes must be killed before removal from the wildlife areas; hunters will not be allowed to take the non-native reptiles unless they are dead. Hunters are encouraged to keep the hides for tanning, but are discouraged from selling the meat because it has dangerously high levels of mercury. It seems like the snakes may be more dangerous to Floridians when served for dinner than they are hiding out in the wild.

The FWC is hoping that hunters who wish to "bag" a big snake will reduce the population in the Everglades and help prevent the spread of pythons around the state. It hardly seems fair that these unwanted pets and their offspring have been turned into target practice, especially since many are ill from this winter's prolonged cold.

*FWC Press Release, February 22, 2010; Curtis Morgan, "New laws aim to rid South Florida of 'injurious' snake species," Miami Herald, January 21, 2010

February 12, 2010: Exotics death toll from January cold*

State wildlife officials are estimating that the prolonged low temperatures Florida experienced last month have significantly reduced the populations of exotic species. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received enough reports from the field to estimate that around half of the Burmese Pythons in the Everglades have died, and more than half of the Green Iguana population is no more. So many thousands of exotic freshwater fish have been seen floating to the tops of rivers and lakes that the numbers are inestimable.

Anecdotal reports indicate that the nuisance exotic species have not been eliminated, as hardy survivors continue to be spotted around the southern part of the state. However, the mounting death toll is a good indication that South Florida may not allow for the uninterrupted proliferation of tropical plants and animals. Nature will play a role, stepping in now and again to curtail out of control growth in invasive species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a ban on the import and interstate sales of Burmese Pythons, African Rock Pythons, Anacondas, and certain other giant exotic snakes that have been regarded as a potential threat to the Florida environment. Reptile breeders and dealers oppose the ban, and they are now pointing to the reduced populations as proof that escaped pets will not survive in the long term, even in the warmest area of the country. The pet trade industry does not believe that the death toll has been fully reported, and skeptics wonder whether politics and funding for wildlife programs are influencing the numbers.

Federal and state wildlife officials warn that the exotic species problem remains unsolved, the populations reduced but not eradicated. Non-native fish that were fortunate enough to weather the cold in the warm water found in the bottom of lakes and canals will reproduce. The strongest pythons and iguanas are still alive and some can be seen basking in the winter sunshine. Some of the largest of these reptiles have died, but younger snakes and iguanas were able to find underground crevices and burrows warm enough to support their survival. In central Florida, efforts are underway to remove a 9-foot mother python and her 2 babies living in the crawl space under a suburban house.

Like the local real estate market, the population of exotic species in South Florida is expected to bounce back. This may take a decade or it may not. Only time will tell.

*David Fleshler and Lisa J. Huriash, "Cold snap killed many pythons in Everglades," South Florida Sun Sentinel, February 11, 2010; Greg Pallone, "9-foot mother python living under family’s house," Central Florida News 13, February 10, 2010

February 2, 2010: Import ban on nine species of snakes under consideration*

On January 20, secretary of the interior Ken Salazar announced a new proposal to ban the import and interstate transportation of nine species of exotic snakes. A news conference was held at New York’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport, the nation’s largest entry point for imported wildlife. Salazar spoke of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to add four species of pythons, four species of anacondas, and the boa constrictor to the nation’s “injurious species” list. Since the injurious species list is regulated by federal law, it is a misdemeanor to import or transport listed animals between states. Violators are subject to fines and prison sentences.

“The Interior Department and states such as Florida are taking swift and common sense action to control and eliminate the populations of these snakes...” Secretary Salazar stated. “If we are going to succeed, we must shut down the importation of the snakes and end the interstate commerce and transportation of them.”

Snake species that would be listed as injurious include: Burmese Python, Northern African Rock Python, Southern African Rock Python, Reticulated Python; Green Anaconda, Yellow Anaconda, Beni (or Bolivian) Anaconda, Deschauensee’s Anaconda; and the Common Boa Constrictor.

The new proposal will be published in the Federal Register later this month. The public will have 60 days to comment. If adopted, the new regulations will supplant other proposed federal legislation that would ban trade in pythons and other large snakes.

*John Collins Rudoff, "Salazar seeks import ban on invasive snakes," New York Times, January 20, 2010; Kurt Repanshek, "Salazar wants to protect Everglades National Park with a ban on importing, transporting pythons, other constrictor snakes," www.nationalparkstraveler.com, January 21, 2010

February 1, 2010: Dog paralysis caused by dead iguanas?*

Some dogs in the South Florida area are suffering from a strange and debilitating illness. So far, at least a dozen canines have been seen by local veterinarians after the pets exhibited sudden weakness in the hind legs, followed by paralysis. One dog has died from the unidentified illness.

A local television station reported that toxins in the dead bodies of iguanas may be poisoning curious dogs. After last month’s persistent cold fronts, many cold-intolerant iguanas have died in South Florida. Decomposing iguana bodies can be found in suburban yards and neighborhood parks, and dogs do have the tendency to investigate with their muzzles.

At this time, a link between dead iguanas and sick dogs is no more than speculation. Research will have to be conducted to see if the decomposing animals are indeed exuding bacteria harmful to other animals. In the meantime, local veterinarians are advising pet owners to keep their dogs on a short leash and remove any dead wildlife from their yards.

*Patty Khuly, "Are dead iguanas paralyzing Miami's dogs?" Dolittler.com, January 31, 2010; "Vets: iguanas might poison dogs," www.wsvn.com, January 29, 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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