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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel Monkey

Blog (2010)

August 17, 2010: Should we catch and eat invasive lionfish?*

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has launched the "Eat Lionfish" campaign. The federal agency is planning a series of events to be held in restaurants across the US. The campaign hopes to arouse the appetites of fishermen, wholesalers, chefs and American diners for this exotic fish that has invaded the waters of the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast.

The lionfish is native to the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, and in the US is a popular aquarium pet. The lionfish invasion is believed to have begun with the casual dumping into local waters of unwanted pet fish.

First spotted off the coast of Florida in the 1980s, the lionfish population grew steadily, then exploded over the last few years. In July, several of the colorful fish were spotted swimming near bathers off Key Biscayne. Seeing the fish so near to the Miami shoreline marks a new milestone in the lionfish invasion, one which is prompting action by government agencies.

Lionfish are big eaters and reproduce quickly. They will consume more than 50 species of fish and many invertebrate species. They outcompete native fish for their prey and habitat. Wildlife experts predict that lionfish will interrupt the recovery of overfished populations such as grouper. Since lionfish feed on the various species that eat coral reef algae, the non-natives serve as a direct threat to our fragile reefs.

The "Eat Lionfish" campaign is the government’s response to a perfect lionfish storm: increasing population size, spreading habitat (lionfish have been seen as far north as Massachusetts and are becoming a serious problem in the Keys), and serious environmental threat. Not to mention the bad vibes for the tourist industry from stinging fish in the shallow waters off Florida beaches.

Owners of pet lionfish are warned not to touch the pretty spines. Toxins in lionfish spines can cause serious illness, and a sting is very painful. For this reason, most fishermen are hesitant to capture and sell the fish. Chefs are wary, as are diners. Lionfish meat is reportedly tasty, but few wish to risk handling the fish on the way to the dinner table. It is not customary to eat lionfish in the areas of the world where they are native.

The Reef Environmental Education Foundation hosts lionfish "derbies" in which contestants dare to catch the most lionfish, which are then cooked up by chefs and eaten by attendees. Three derbies are scheduled for various locations in the Keys. For more information, or to report a lionfish sighting, contact www.reef.org.

Should we do our civic duty and eat lionfish? The choice is ours to make. In the meantime, it would be prudent for our state legislators to sign into law a proposal to ban the species from import to the state. And it remains against the law to dump unwanted lionfish, or other non-native species, in Florida waters.

*Kari Huus, "Do your civic duty: Eat this fish!" www.msnbc.com, August 10, 2010; Jeff Burnside, "Dangerous lionfish comes roaring into South Florida," www.nbcmiami.com, July 14, 2010

July 2, 2010: New Rules for Exotic Pets of Concern*

As of July 1, pet enthusiasts in the state of Florida no longer have the option of purchasing certain exotic animals that have been classified by the state as reptiles of concern. This is due to Senate bill 318, which was passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Charlie Crist last month.

Under the new state rules, Florida residents will not be able to buy as pets Burmese Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, African Rock Pythons, Scrub Pythons, Green Anacondas, or Nile Monitor Lizards. It is now illegal to own these particular species of large reptiles. However, pet owners who already purchased these animals before July 1st and who have a valid permit may keep their exotic reptiles. No new permits will be issued for reptiles of concern.

On June 24, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved changes to the classification of wildlife species known as reptiles of concern. The new classification for these species is "conditional species." Dealers, breeders, exhibitors and researchers will be permitted to possess these reptiles for sale outside Florida. Penalties for unpermitted ownership and sale of the conditional species in Florida have been increased.

Anyone who is unable to keep an exotic pet, including the conditional species, may turn the animal over to a licensed dealer. There is no fine for those who turn in unpermitted animals. No one in the state of Florida should release an exotic pet into the wild, and there are fines and penalties for doing so.

As long as breeders, dealers, exhibitors and researchers never abandon or allow their conditional reptiles to escape, the new rules could help Florida. And as long as exotic reptile owners keep their pets safely tucked away, the danger to Florida residents and our natural environment may be reduced. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that there will be no future releases or escapes. And there are still untold numbers of pythons and Nile Monitors loose in our state that will continue to breed.

*"FWC approves new rules for Burmese python," FWC News Release, www.myfwc.com, June 24, 2010; Bill Kaczor, "Python prohibition, bong ban among new Florida laws," Bloomberg Business Week, June 30, 2010

June 21, 2010: Flamingo Gardens hosts educational weekend on invasive reptiles in Florida*

Last weekend, a few of the exotic snakes captured in South Florida were on display at Flamingo Gardens in Davie, Florida, including a Yellow Anaconda.

Lt. Wood and Yellow Anaconda
Lt. Lisa Wood and Yellow Anaconda

Home to botanical gardens and Everglades wildlife that has been rescued and rehabilitated, Flamingo Gardens is a beautiful 60-acre estate rich with lush flora and fascinating fauna. Shrimp-colored flamingos pose on one leg by shallow ponds, while royal blue peacocks strut about the grounds, calling loudly to one another and spreading their incredible tails.

Until recently, Flamingo Gardens hosted weekend events in which exotic species of animals were purchased by pet lovers. Now Flamingo Gardens has a new mission: to educate Floridians about the pitfalls of owning non-native species in an environment overrun with escaped and abandoned exotic pets.

One of the guest speakers at the two-day event was Lieutenant Lisa Wood from the Venom Response Office of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. The Venom Response Program includes a team of specially trained paramedic firefighters for rapid response to "envenomations," or poisonous and venomous bites and stings from native and non-native wildlife.

The Venom Response Office maintains the only antivenom bank for public use in the US. Antivenom is available as needed in the state of Florida, and can be shipped to other locations in response to emergencies. The Miami Venom Response Office has responded to requests from all over the world, including from soldiers stationed in Iraq.

The Venom Response Program also provides Florida residents with training and education on the dangerous and venomous species in our midst. Many Floridians are aware of the most common species creating problems in our state, and the Venom Response Office receives numerous calls each year regarding non-venomous iguanas and Burmese Pythons. They also receive reports of lesser known venomous and non-venomous reptiles that escape or are released by pet owners and breeders.

From 1998 to 2008, the Venom Response Office responded to 115 calls about exotic animals. Last year alone, the Office captured 89 Burmese Pythons. This year, they are receiving 3 to 5 calls each week about exotic species on the loose.

Some of the lesser known exotics the Venom Response Program has captured of late include:

  • Green Anaconda--run over by a car near the Miami International Airport, the huge snake survived unscathed
  • Savannah Monitor--a smaller version of the Nile Monitor, this African carnivore is common in the pet trade
  • Agama lizards--the brightly colored, iguanalike reptiles are now common in 5 Florida counties
  • Brown Basilisk--native to Panama, Belize, Costa Rica, and South America, these 2-foot lizards can run across water so are nicknamed "Jesus lizards"
  • Leucistic Texas Rat Snake--this non-venomous colorless snake native to Texas is bred for the pet trade
  • Carpet Pythons--these beautiful pythons are expensive as pets
  • Rainbow Boa Constrictors--these colorful boas are native to Brazil
  • Hog Island Boas--currently believed to be extinct on their home island in the Honduras, these pale snakes can shift colors

Over the last few years, the Venom Response Office has attended to such dangerous exotic snakes as the African Bush Viper, King Cobra, Green Pit Viper, Puff Adder and Death Adder. Their antivenom supplies have been used to treat bites from native venomous snakes like Cottonmouths and Coral Snakes, and are available to treat bites from exotic snakes like South African Boomslangs and Mambas, Australian Taipans and Eastern Brown Snakes, and Peruvian Bushmasters. None of these snakes are known to be breeding in the wild in Florida, but they may be sold by the pet trade. As most residents are aware, almost any reptile kept as a pet can end up on the loose--and breeding in the wild--in our state.

The Venom Response Office also attends to toxic stings from non-reptiles like scorpions, lionfish, and other former pets that have been abandoned and now pose a threat to Florida residents.

Educational events like last weekend’s programming at Flamingo Gardens can play an essential role in helping Floridians to make wise pet selections for themselves and their children. This kind of necessary training can help us to stay safe while enjoying Florida’s wildlife.

To reach the Venom Response Office, call 786.331.5000, or visit their website: www.venomone.com.


June 6, 2010: Summer weather means more exotic reptiles spotted in Florida*

Cape Coral is home to unknown numbers of Nile Monitors, carnivorous lizards from Africa that can reach lengths of 7 feet or more. The city's environmental resources department responds to calls from city residents who spot the lizards in their yards or neighborhoods. During the summer, the sightings increase. This summer is no exception.

A Nile Monitor trapping program was established by the city of Cape Coral in 2003. So far, city trappers have netted 293 Nile Monitor lizards. An environmental biologist for the city maintains the traps. Typically, 15 to 17 traps are set around the city on any given day.

Sometimes the traps capture other exotic species. Cape Coral traps have ensnared a tegu, a python and a boa constrictor. However, city wildlife officials state that these species are not an issue in Cape Coral, but are due to isolated releases by irresponsible pet owners. So far, the Nile Monitor is the species of most concern in the city of Cape Coral.

Despite the long cold winter, this summer's Nile Monitor sightings indicate that the population has remained viable. The animals continue to breed. Cape Coral trappers continue to have their hands--and traps--full.

Perhaps the city will appeal to tourists interested in exotic wildlife tours. After all the publicity about pythons in the Everglades and iguanas in South Florida, our non-native species have become an element of Florida lore. Public interest in exotics on the loose in our state has increased. Florida tour guides are reporting that tourists want to see non-native species in addition to our native wildlife.

Florida's new reputation as a place to go on safari won't provide any practical solutions for the city of Cape Coral. The worldwide fascination with our exotic species problem has yet to help us resolve what seems to be a form of biopollution we have no way to clean up.

*JL Watson, "Warmth lures out Monitor lizards," Fort Myers News-Press, June 4, 2010; Damien Cave, "Pythons in Florida stalked by hunters and tourists alike," New York Times, May 7, 2010

May 21, 2010: Oil spill threatens native and non-native Florida wildlife*

Florida residents are gearing up for the aftereffects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At this time, the crude oil leak is drifting toward the area where it could be swept into the Keys and the Atlantic Ocean, possibly within the next 2 weeks. No one is sure what route the leaking oil will take. Even if the oil does not wash ashore here, Florida residents may find animals that have come into contact with the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) advises all residents to avoid handling animals that may have been contaminated by the oil. Instead, FWC recommends that Florida residents report any sightings of wildlife injured or affected by oil by using the toll-free hotline: 866.557.1401.

Rescuing animals that have been exposed to the oil spill requires special hazardous material training and equipment, as well as the proper permitting and training for wildlife rescue. The oil spill chemicals are dangerous to humans as well as the animals. Do not touch! To ensure human safety as well as animal safety, be sure to call in any sightings to the FWC hotline.

Contact with the oil spill chemicals, including the solvents used to disperse the oil, causes skin irritation, respiratory problems, organ failure and death in animals of all kinds. Long-term exposure adversely affects reproduction as well as overall health. Nests and eggs are especially vulnerable to the hazardous waste. Sea turtles, shore birds, manatees, dolphins and whales will suffer and die. Contaminated fish, crustaceans and mollusks will die. The coral in our fragile reefs will also die.

Like last winter's cold weather, the oil spill may help to reduce Florida’s overpopulations of exotic wildlife. However, non-native animals tend to be survivors and are able to outcompete native animals for food and territory. This will be especially true if native animals are weakened and food supplies are reduced due to oil spill contamination.

*Catherine Skipp, "Florida worries about effect on tourism," New York Times, May 19, 2010; Alan Levin, "EPA tells BP to use less toxic chemicals," USA Today, May 20, 2010; www.myfwc.com/oilspill

May 6, 2010: Tegus on the loose in South Florida*

Florida has more non-native wildlife than any other state, and current regulations are not preventing the release and spread of new and different exotic animal species. According to state wildlife biologists, the tegu is the latest non-native reptile to establish breeding populations in Florida. Tegus are now living in the wild in the Tampa area, southern Miami Dade, Homestead, and on the fringes of Everglades National Park.

Tegus of various species are native to South America. These large lizards tend to be carnivores and may grow to 4 feet in length. Once they reach adult size, tegus can become difficult to manage and expensive to feed. For this reason, pet owners have abandoned their tegus in undeveloped areas and parks. In Florida, pet tegus are surviving on their own--and breeding.

In April, a tegu was discovered near the entrance to Everglades National Park. Since last fall, more than a dozen have been captured by state wildlife personnel. Tegus have been spotted around the southern part of the state and reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Although not nearly as common as iguanas, tegus do pose a serious threat to the environment. These reptiles will eat the eggs and young of nesting birds, and they can outcompete native burrowing animals like Burrowing Owls and Gopher Tortoises. They are able to reproduce more than once a year, and have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

If you see a tegu on the loose, do not approach. If cornered, the animal may bite. Report your sighting to a local humane wildlife trapper and on the FWC hotline: www.IveGot1.org.

*Ari Odzer, "Leapin' lizards, another South Florida pest," WPTV.com, May 5, 2010; University of Florida, "Florida Invader: Tegu Lizards," www.ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu

April 28, 2010: Wallaby and Lemurs on the loose in Florida*

Last month, a wallaby slipped out of a harness while on a walk with its owner and disappeared in Windermere, the exclusive town near Orlando where Tiger Woods resides. This month, a couple of Ring-tailed Lemurs were found in a neighborhood of unincorporated Clearwater, on the west coast of Florida. The two tiny lemurs were captured using a bowl of fruit. The wallaby, however, has yet to be caught, although it has been sighted near the Windermere Elementary School, on the golf course, and in the downtown area.

Of course, these animals are not native to the US. There are some 30 species of wallaby, all native to Australia. A marsupial, the wallaby is like a small kangaroo, so adaptation to life in a Florida city would be extremely difficult. Ring-tailed Lemurs are primates native to the island of Madagascar. These highly intelligent animals are social and like to live in groups of up to 30. The 2 found wandering around Clearwater are babies, perhaps 3 months old, who most likely escaped from their owner. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating.

Even though we find them adorable, wallabies and lemurs do not make good pets. It’s that simple.

Keeping exotic wildlife inside our apartments or suburban homes is unfair to the animals, and allowing them outside can result in escape. Once on the loose, exotic pets are frightened and lonely. They may be unable to feed themselves or find appropriate shelter. Dogs will harass them, and traffic can kill them. If they do manage to adjust to life in overdeveloped Florida, there’s always a chance they could survive and thrive--and breed.

*"Rogue wallaby wanders Windermere," Orlando News Story, WKMG Orlando, March 31, 2010; Amy L. Edwards, "Wallaby on the loose in the Windermere area," Orlando Sentinel, April 1, 2010; Rob Shaw, "Wandering lemurs a pleasant surprise," Tampa Tribune, April 28, 2010

April 22, 2010: Exotics Hunting Season Yields No Results*

The special hunting season for reptiles of concern in the Everglades has come to a close. According to a recent report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), not a single reptile of concern was captured during the 6-week period. This means no Burmese Pythons were found. None. Also, no Reticulated Pythons, African Rock Pythons, Green Anacondas, or Scrub Pythons. No Nile Monitors either.

FWC biologists have concluded that the cold winter weather Florida experienced this year has dramatically reduced the number of Burmese Pythons living in the Everglades. Reports from permit holders, hunters, and researchers in the field have led wildlife experts to conclude that 50% of the wild python population has been eradicated as a result of the unusually cold temperatures in January and February, 2010.

Environmentalists regard this winter’s impact on the exotic species populations as a beneficial seasonal kill, a natural way for the ecosystem to return to a healthy balance. Huge non-native snakes in large numbers are a threat to the fragile Everglades environment, and the giant invaders do not bolster Florida’s public image either. Residents have been pleased to learn that there are fewer pythons in the Everglades than there were in 2009.

However, we cannot breathe a sigh of relief quite yet. Untold numbers of pythons have managed to survive the winter chill. Since the first cold snap occurred just before the normal breeding season, this year’s reproductive cycle might have been interrupted. Scientists are predicting a smaller than normal expansion of the population this year. But the exotic reptiles in our midst will breed again, and their populations will grow once more.

For this reason, FWC will host another special hunting season for reptiles of concern. The season will begin at the end of the summer, allowing properly permitted hunters to capture exotic animals in certain areas of the Everglades.

*"Special season for capture and removal of reptiles of concern ends, future opportunities to be offered," www.myfwc.com/NEWSROOM, April 19, 2010

April 8, 2010: Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay*

The same rhesus monkey that terrorized Tampa area residents more than a year ago by tossing its poop at them (click here) now has a fan page on Facebook. He is still at large and continues to garner public attention. One Florida trapper claims to have tracked the elusive monkey through three counties. The escaped pet has been shot numerous times with tranquilizers and television cameras. Still, the monkey always manages to thwart his trackers and has thereby become a Facebook hero.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is not amused. Wildlife officials are warning Tampa Bay area residents not to feed or attempt to capture the monkey because rhesus macaques often carry diseases that are transmissible to humans. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 80% of the species are carriers of simian hepatitis B, a potentially fatal disease for humans. Untreated, this aggressive virus kills the majority of those who contract it. Even when treated the disease can prove fatal. Monkeys transmit the virus to humans by biting, scratching, or spitting, which makes feeding by hand a dangerous thing to do.

Feeding animals in the wild is never a good idea anyway because it serves to encourage them to approach humans, which can be risky for both. If feeling threatened, a feral animal will make a defensive attack. And frightened humans are equally aggressive toward wild animals.

In fact, the rhesus monkey is the more vulnerable species in the Tampa Bay area. The monkey appears to be adapting to urban life, stealing fruit from backyards, climbing up apartment building walls, and rummaging in trash bins. He has dodged traffic and avoided power lines, two of the many threats he faces daily trying to feed and shelter himself. Normally, however, monkeys live in troops, relying on other members of the species for protection and companionship. The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay may be popular on Facebook, but he is alone on the street, lost and trying to survive in a hostile world.

Monkeys are difficult to capture, even for trained wildlife trappers. They are fast, agile, and extremely intelligent animals. The Tampa Bay monkey appears to be quite streetwise as well. However, he would probably be happier living in a zoo or sanctuary with other monkeys. He would certainly be safer. The FWC is asking anyone who sees the monkey to avoid approaching the animal, and to call the Wildlife Alert Hotline: 1.888.404.3922.

*"All kidding aside, this monkey business is serious," www.myfwc.com/NEWSROOM, April 1, 2010; Kealan Oliver, "Most wanted: fugitive monkey on the loose," CBS/AP, March 24, 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.

Book CoverFind out more here.

Click here to view a really cool trailer!