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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel Monkey

Blog (2011)

November 2, 2011: Python with deer in stomach killed in Everglades*

Last week, officials killed one of the largest pythons ever found in the Florida Everglades. The snake was discovered by python hunters near a known deer trail. The female Burmese python had recently consumed a 76-pound white-tailed deer, and was still digesting the huge meal.

The snake measured between 15 and 16 feet in length, and weighed a whopping 215.4 pounds. After the whole deer was removed from the python's stomach, the python weighed only 139.1 pounds.

This is the second time Florida wildlife officials have found evidence that exotic pythons are consuming native deer. Pythons and other invasive reptiles are a threat to the native wildlife of South Florida. So far, wildlife officials have removed around 1750 pythons from the Everglades. Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, estimates that this number is not even ten percent of the total python population currently living--and breeding--in the Everglades.

*Timothy Stenovec, "16-foot python killed in Florida; deer found in stomach," Huffington Post, November 1, 2011; Deborah Netburn, "15-foot python devours 76-pound deer: Is that normal?" Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2011

October 30, 2011: Amnesty Day for exotic pets taking place next weekend*

On Saturday, November 5, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can turn in unwanted non-native animals at Sea World Orlando. If you are no longer able to care for a pet monkey, iguana, or giant African snake, this is your opportunity to hand the animal over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The FWC will find a good home for your pet as long as it is healthy.

Amnesty Day is held several times a year in various locations around the state. The program allows exotic animal owners to avoid abandoning their unwanted pets in the wild. No fines are levied. Please do not bring in dogs or cats or other domestic animals.

Even if you do not have a pet in need of a new home, Amnesty Day may be of interest. Local experts will be on hand to answer questions you may have about exotic pet ownership. If you would like to be an approved non-native pet adopter, you can apply ahead of time online at the FWC website. Once your application is approved, bring your letter of approval to the Amnesty Day event. Be sure to obtain proper licensing for ownership of Conditional Non-native Species such as Red-eared Slider turtles, pythons, Green Anacondas, Nile Monitor lizards, and Nutria.

The Nutria is a large rodent native to South America. Nutria feed on wetland plants and can cause significant damage to coastal wetlands.


September 19, 2011: Giant snails invade Coral Gables neighborhood*

The huge and hungry Achatina fulica, an oversize snail from East Africa, has been discovered in large numbers in the Douglas Park area of Miami. Now that a resident reported the presence of non-native snails in her back yard to state wildlife officials, the latest exotic species invasion has become national news. After identifying the species, state officials began going yard to yard, trapping the slow-moving creatures. More than 1000 were discovered in a one mile square area.

The Florida Department of Agriculture released a statement this month warning the public about the Giant African Land Snails, calling them "one of the most damaging snails in the world." Native to Kenya and Tanzania, the snail can reach a length of 8 inches or more and can live as long as 10 years. Each snail has both male and female sex organs, and can reproduce quickly and prolifically. These snails may lay as many as 1200 eggs in a single year.

Illegal to import to the U.S. except by special permit for research purposes, the species has been here before. In 1966, a boy brought home three Giant African Land Snails from a trip to Hawaii and his grandmother let them loose in her garden. When there were around 17,000 slithering about, the state decided to eradicate, a process that cost a million dollars and took ten years. More recently, a man living in Hialeah used the African snails in healing ceremonies for a religious sect. Authorities discovered this after some of the man's followers became sick from drinking the juices of the live snail.

Although the origin of the current invasion is unknown, the results can be predicted. These huge snails cause serious economic damage. They will eat more than 500 kind of plants and consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, plus flower beds and gardens, as well as plaster, stucco, recycled materials, paper, and cat food. They eat from garbage cans and will nibble on a house. The silent invaders can carry a parasite that causes meningitis, and should not be handled unless gloves are worn.

State officials are asking residents to report any sightings of the big brown snail (888.397.1517). Wear gloves and slip the snail into a ziplock bag until wildlife authorities come by to collect it. Keep away from small children and pets.

*Mary Ellen Klas, "Miami's next dangerous threat: Giant African Land Snails," Miami Herald, September 15, 2011; Kyle Munzenrieder, "Destructive Giant African Land Snails on the loose in Miami," Miami New Times, September 15, 2011; Lomi Kriel, "Giant snails invade Miami subdivision, spur local alert," Miami Herald, September 19, 2011

September 4, 2011: This Little Piggy has No Home*

In most South Florida cities and communities, the ownership of pet pigs is not allowed due to local ordinances. This proved to be the case in Pompano, where a family pet was removed from the home and placed in an animal shelter. Porkey, a 50-pound pot-bellied pig, is now looking for a new home where laws against swine do not apply. Porkey needs a place to live where the neighbors are more welcoming. Usually a city only enforces the rules after complaints have been received.

Porkey the pig is lucky. The neighbors may have ratted him out, but at least he hasnít been dumped in the Everglades. Native to Vietnam, pot-bellied pigs are adorable as babies, but they grow very large and become aggressive.

Ask Lynn Boismier, the founder of Noahís Ark Pot-bellied Pig Rescue in New Port Richey. Years ago she got her own baby pig, and learned the hard way that these animals are difficult pets. Over the past 14 years, Lynn has taken in more than 100 pot-bellied pigs, so many that there is no longer room at her sanctuary. Many were abused and abandoned by irresponsible pet owners. She keeps these unwanted pigs comfortable and safe. And she takes her pigs to area schools, where she educates students about the hard realities of responsible pig ownership.

Porkey is only a year old. As he grows (and grows and grows), he will be more expensive to feed and more difficult to handle. As an adolescent, he may become unpredictable. He will not be a pet that one should keep in the home. And when he is full grown and weighs as much as 300 pounds, Porkey will require adequate living arrangements with plenty of room to roam outdoors, preferably with other pot-bellied pigs. Otherwise, nobody will be happy, including Porkeyís neighbors.

*Ihosvani Rodriguez, "Purged by Pompano, piggy needs a new home," Sun Sentinel, September 2, 2011; www.noahsarkpbprescue.tripod.com

August 1, 2011: Nile Monitor lizards on the loose in West Palm Beach*

On the west coast of Florida, the canal-lined city of Cape Coral has been struggling for years with a breeding population of Nile Monitor lizards. These African carnivores will eat anything, and can grow to lengths of 7 feet. They are scary creatures with sharp teeth and a menacing demeanor. They can be aggressive if cornered.

Of course, these African lizards are exotic imports. Typically sold as cute little babies to naive pet lovers, Nile Monitor lizards donít belong in Florida.

Now there appears to be a breeding population of Nile Monitor lizards in West Palm Beach. Sightings have occurred along the C-51 canal on Southern Boulevard. One 5-foot lizard made its way onto the screened patio of a homeowner along the canal by squeezing in though the doggie door. Wildlife officials were called to trap it.

Nile Monitor lizards like to nest near the water. Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have become concerned that this is occurring along the C-51 canal. In Cape Coral, traps and other attempts to curtail the Nile Monitor population have failed. Estimates vary but there may be as many as 1000 Nile Monitors living in that southwestern city.

These exotic animals on the loose were either raised as pets and abandoned, or have been released by breeders. They are dangerous and out of place here in Florida. When captured, the animals are euthanized. Thus, the situation is unfair to both residents of Florida and the non-native animals.

If you see a Nile Monitor lizard on the loose, call and report your sighting: 888.483.4681. Do not approach. Nile Monitor lizards defend themselves with their heavy tails, big claws, and a strong jaw full of sharp teeth and unpleasant bacteria. You don't want to get bitten by a Nile Monitor lizard.

*Robert Nolin, "Nasty Nile Monitors showing up in South Florida," Sun Sentinel, July 5, 2011; Julius Whigham II, "Nile Monitor lizards caught in West Palm Beach, officials warn of others," Palm Beach Post, June 28, 2011

June 2, 2011: Lionfish Derby in Keys finds more, bigger exotics*

Lionfish are beautiful to look at in an aquarium, but they are a problem out in the Atlantic. The growing numbers of this carnivorous fish--in the Caribbean, off the Bahamas and the Florida coastline--have environmentalists and marine managers worried.

On May 14, teams of divers spent the day in the water off Long Key, hunting lionfish. The event was the first of three annual "lionfish derbies" sponsored by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the REEF Environmental Education Foundation. Divers competed for prizes while doing their part to kill off some of the invasive fish that threaten Florida's native wildlife.

Millions of lionfish are believed to be breeding now in the Atlantic Ocean. They have no predators. These ravenous fish eat juvenile fish and crustaceans including grouper, snapper, grunts and crabs. Lionfish have voracious appetites, grow rapidly, and breed year-round. For these reasons, lionfish outcomptete native fish, posing a threat to marine life and ecosystem balance.

Last year's three Keys derbies netted more than 600 exotic lionfish unwelcome in area waters. In this yearís first event, more than 500 were captured. Scientists examining the fish agreed that this year's fish tended to be larger in size. In fact, the largest fish was 14 inches long!

Derby sponsors advise us to become lionfish predators. And they tell us there is reason to do so. After the derby, the captured fish were carefully prepared, cooked and served as fried lionfish bites and lionfish wrapped in bacon.

*Kevin Wadlow,"Lionfish derby nets 531 fish--bigger fish," www.keysnet.com, May 18, 2011; Lisa Mongy, "First Florida lionfish derby of 2011 nets 530 invasive lionfish," www.diverwire.com, May 16, 2011; www.reef.org/lionfish/derbies

April 13, 2011: Students abandon exotics when leaving campus at term's end*

As the school year draws to a close, students on college campuses around the country may be wondering, Now what do I do with the python/iguana/monkey I bought last fall? Mom and Dad wonít let me bring it home, so now what?

Every year, college towns like Gainesville suffer the consequences of the irresponsibility demonstrated by student pet owners who decide to release unwanted exotic animals. One University of Florida freshman discovered a python in her sink while washing dishes! Such stories become common during the summer months after students leave campus.

In response, UF biologists have prepared a brochure entitled "Options for Unwanted Exotic Pets." The wildlife experts advise students with exotic animals they cannot take with them not to abandon their animals. They suggest looking for a new home, contacting animal rescue centers and possibly returning the pet to the pet store where it was purchased.

These are fine suggestions but unlikely to help. Most rescue centers are full up right now, and few take in exotic animals. The animal shelters are under siege with millions of abandoned domestic animals, one of the many casualties of our current economic woes. Too many people are no longer able to care for their pets. No room at the inn.

If nobody you know wants your unwanted pet, perhaps a local veterinarian may know a willing pet adopter. Pet stores rarely allow returns, and few will refund your money. The best advice in the UF handout may come too late for this year's departing students: "Ask yourself: Is this the best pet for my situation, or should I consider a different one?"

Or better yet, you may want to hold off on having a pet until your living situation is stable. And you may want to consider adopting an orphan domestic animal. There are so many cats and dogs that need a good home, while the exotic species are better off living in their native habitat.

*Steve A. Johnson, Monica E. McGarrity, and Dustin Smith, "Options for Unwanted Exotic Pets," UF/IFAS Publication No. WEC308, 2011; Nathan Crabbe, "If your python needs a new home, UF offers advice," Gainesville Sun, April 7, 2011; Ruth Bashinsky, "At the the end of their leash: Buyerís remorse sinks in for overwhelmed pet owners," New York Daily News, March 26, 2011

March 15, 2011: Non-native species awareness still an issue*

Did you know that the first week in March was National Invasive Species Awareness Week? We were supposed to take some time to recognize the extent of the problem facing us now that we have been invaded by foreign plants and animals of many species from around the globe. A seminar was held in the nationís capital to discuss the impact of exotic invaders on our country's ecology and economy. Experts estimated that the non-natives are costing us around 120 billion dollars a year. The need to reduce the non-native species currently being smuggled and traded was emphasized. For most of us, this means that wildlife officials are making a simple request: Donít buy exotics. Less demand from us will mean a reduced supply from elsewhere.

Many people who purchase exotic animals find out that these species are not the best pets. Sometimes the required care is too expensive, other times the animals become too large or wild to handle. Pet owners love their baby exotics, then regret their choice once the animal reaches maturity and is miserable living inside a home or apartment. For this reason, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hosted the fifth annual Nonnative Pet Amnesty Day at Zoo Miami last weekend. Pet owners turned over unwanted animals including cockatoos, prairie dogs, iguanas and boa constrictors. These animals will be placed in approved homes with qualified adopters to care for them.

Some of those who surrendered their pets were sad, even tearful. Indeed, parting company with a beloved animal can be devastating, especially for children. This is why it is essential that we take the time and make the effort to only purchase appropriate pets. We need to do a bit of research before we buy: How large will the animal get? What does it eat? Does it have special cage requirements? Will it be content living in a cage in the living room or garage?

In the state of Florida, where we have a serious problem with escaped and abandoned non-native animals, exotic pets are usually NOT appropriate choices.

*Rodney Barreto, "FWC uses teamwork to manage exotic species, habitats," www.myfwc.com/news, March 9, 2011; Pamela Duque, "Returned: Exotic pets. No questions asked," Miami Herald, March 12, 2011

February 10, 2011: Exotic reptile populations bounce back after last year's cold*

Just when we thought it was safe...

Scientists were hoping that last winter's record low temperatures had successfully reduced the state's exotic reptile populations by a least 50%. However, population studies and reports from capture programs indicate that this is not the case. In fact, populations of exotic pets on the loose around the state seem to be bouncing back in surprisingly large numbers.

Field observations over the past year suggest that some non-native species that were believed to be decimated are now on the road to recovery. Other exotic species seem to have suffered fewer losses than researchers thought. For example, 322 pythons were captured in the Everglades last year. This number represents only a 10% drop from the results for 2009. And last week a 13.5 foot python was discovered in West Miami-Dade.

Green Iguanas were seriously impacted by the cold, and many of the largest (and oldest) died in the trees when the freezing temperatures hit. However, plenty of juvenile Green Iguanas have been spotted this winter, and scientists believe that the species will rebound. Both species of spinytail iguanas found in the wild in Florida appear to have weathered the cold quite well, probably because they live in warm underground burrows.

It will take several more breeding seasons before wildlife experts can tell us definitively about the overall effect of the cold weather in 2010. In the meantime, do not buy exotic animals as pets and, if you have any, never abandon them in the wild.

*Curtis Morgan, "Exotic invasion: pythons back in the Everglades," Miami Herald, February 7, 2011

January 15, 2011: Pet python that killed baby in 2009 had not been fed*

The python that killed a two-year-old girl in a rural town northwest of Orlando was starving, and it had been kept in a terrarium, according to newly released documents. The glass container had no fitted top, and a blanket was used as a cover.

A huge Burmese Python, the pet snake escaped regularly from this inadequate cage, including on the night of the killing. The live-in boyfriend of the mother of the victim had discovered the snake on the floor outside their bedroom, and returned it to the terrarium. The next morning, he found the python in the crib wrapped around the dead child.

According to the documents, the snake's owners were unable to afford food for the exotic pet, and it had not eaten in a month or more. The most recent meal had been roadkill, a squirrel they found and brought home to the python.

The case, believed to be the only instance in the state of Florida in which a child has been killed by a non-venomous constrictor snake, received international attention. The mother and her boyfriend have been charged with criminal negligence and child abuse, and face up to 15 years in prison. The terrarium that housed the snake was in violation of state rules, and the pet was not permitted.

This senseless tragedy is an example of both child and animal abuse. Such horrendous accidents can be prevented by selecting pets wisely and treating them humanely.

Stephen Hudak, "Pet python likely starving when it killed Sumter County child, documents show," Orlando Sentinel, January 1, 2011; AP, "Hungry pet python kills two-year-old," Daily Telegraph, January 1, 2011

January 6, 2011: Second cold winter killing off Florida invasives*

If you live in South Florida, youíve probably seen a dead iguana or two lying in the road during the past few weeks. Maybe a Cuban Knight Anole or other non-native reptile has appeared in your neighborhood, ill or dying after temperatures dipped into the 30s last month. Reptiles native to warm weather countries cannot tolerate prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, and many died here in Florida during last winter's unusually chilly weather. Pockets of survivors and their offspring appeared over the summer, but many have not been able to survive this yearís cold.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has estimated an 80% reduction in the stateís Green Iguana population at this point. The species had been spreading north toward Orlando, but are now found largely in the southernmost areas of the state. For example, a population of Green Iguanas is still living in Bahia Honda State Park in the Keys.

Invasive snakes tend to be hardier than iguanas, and the population in South Florida continues to serve as a threat to the Everglades habitat. Decemberís chill resulted in the reported death of 2 Burmese Pythons and a boa constrictor in the southern Everglades, but untold numbers remain in the area. African Rock Pythons, a fierce species that can be undesirably aggressive, are less tolerant of the cold. Around 20 were trapped in the Miami area over the past year, but wildlife officials are hopeful that the recent cold fronts have taken care of the rest of the population.

For the invasives that are still thriving, Jackson Landers has a suggestion: hunt them, butcher them, and cook them for dinner. The eco-hunter has come to Florida to do just that, making Green Iguana in ragu sauce after hunting on Big Pine Key, and iguana tacos after capturing Black Spinytails on Gasparilla Island. Landers provides students with hunting instructions, and is writing a book about his preferred method for addressing the invasive species issue. You can see what he's been up to in Florida and elsewhere by visiting The Locavore Hunter on blogspot.com.

*David Fleshler, "Twilight of the iguana?" Sun Sentinel, December 27, 2010; James Gorman, "A diet for an invaded planet: invasive species," New York Times, December 31, 2010

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Iguana Invasion! Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

by Virginia Aronson and Allyn Szejko

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