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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel Monkey

Blog (2012)

August 14, 2012: Massive python in Everglades has 87 eggs*

Another Burmese Python living in the wild in Florida has been euthanized. This big beauty broke records in length and number of potential offspring. The 17-foot 7-inch specimen weighed 164 pounds and, upon autopsy, had 87 eggs inside her. She was the biggest python to be captured by wildlife officials in Florida. If she had remained in the Everglades, her babies would have been numerous, adding to the area's invasive species total. Which is already too high for head counts.

The massive snake was captured more than a month earlier by scientists. They had been tracking a male python in order to locate an active breeding ground. The male led the biologists to the female, who was outfitted with radio tags and a motion detector. She was followed through the Everglades for more than 30 days, then recaptured and euthanized.

Researchers with the U. S. Geological Survey have been using captured pythons in their attempt to manage the population currently living and breeding in the Everglades. Wildlife officials do not expect to be able to eradicate the giant snakes. The most they can promise us is the capture of gravid females.

Euthanizing wild animals because of their potential for damage to the environment is a controversial and disturbing trend in this state. The government believes there is no other choice, while animal rights advocates feel sickened. When innocent animals die, no matter what their size, nobody is happy about it.

*Janie Campbell, "Record breaking python found in Everglades with 87 eggs inside," Huffington Post, August 14, 2012; Rene Lynch, "Monster 17-foot python found in Evergladesówith 87 eggs," Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2012

June 2012: Pythons remain biggest problem species in Florida*

Researchers are not sure of the exact numbers, but they do know that thousands of Burmese pythons are living in the Everglades. Eradication has become impossible at this point, so wildlife officials are hoping the population can be managed.

In 2010, the state experimented with the use of bomb-sniffing dogs to hunt down the elusive invasive snakes. Trained at Auburn University to sniff out explosives in airports and other locations, the dogs were able to track down nineteen snakes twice as fast as human trackers could manage the task. Trained dogs can serve as border guards, alerting wildlife researchers when pythons are moving into new areas. A helpful addition to the myriad ways the state is attempting to use to deal with the "python problem."

So far, federal agencies and local governments have spent more than six million dollars on the "python problem" since 2005. Scientists and government officials are still trying to determine how the non-native snake population might be kept under control. Meanwhile, the snakes keep on breeding.

In January, the National Academy of Sciences published a study indicating a dramatic decline in a number of species in the state of Florida including deer, rabbit, raccoon, opossum, and bobcat. Overdevelopment and environmental issues are the main cause for the decline. This includes thousands of hungry snakes populating--and breeding in--the Everglades.

New research indicates that Burmese Pythons can survive swims in salt water. Reptiles tend to have poor salinity tolerance, but not the Burmese Python. This means the giant snake may move from the Everglades, swimming to Key West and the islands of the Caribbean. The spread of the Burmese Python is something else for scientists to study.

For more info on the python invasion, read Snake in the Grass by Larry Perez (Pineapple Press, 2012).

*Mike DiPaola, "Pythons swallow whole deer in Florida, six million dollar tab," Bloomberg, May 3, 2012; Barbara Liston, "Bomb-sniffing dogs enlisted to stem Florida python invasion," Reuters, April 30, 2012; Tim Wall, "Florida python invasion could spread," Discovery News, January 6, 2012

April 6, 2012: Giant Rats Still Breeding on Grassy Key*

Contrary to hopeful speculation of eradication success, Grassy Key still has giant pouched rats in residence. Recent sightings of the huge African rodents have forced the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to return to their discontinued trapping program. At least twenty more troublesome rats have been caught. And wildlife officials believe there are more on the loose.

Like many non-native species running wild in Florida, the foreign rats were originally imported by the exotic pet trade. In 1999, eight Gambian Pouched Rats escaped from a breeder on Grassy Key, a small island around 60 miles north of Key West. By 2007, the rat population was large enough to elicit complaints from residents. So state biologists launched an eradication program.

Gambian Pouched Rats are among the largest rodents in the world. They can grow to three feet in length and weigh as much as nine pounds, similar in size to a large house cat or a small raccoon. Gambian rats may carry serious diseases to which humans are susceptible, and they eat voraciously. Also, they breed successfully in the Florida climate, producing 4 to 5 litters a year with up to 5 offspring each time. The big rats are attracted to dumps, backyard garbage cans, and city dumpsters.

This non-native invader can not be considered officially eradicated until none of the oversize rats have been sighted for two years. In the meantime, Florida residents are hopeful the giant rodents donít hitch a ride north and begin breeding on the mainland.

* "Gambian Pouched Rats population rises again in Florida Keys," Huffington Post, April 6, 2012; Richard Engeman et al, "The Path to Eradication of the Gambian Pouched Rat in Florida," USDA/APHIS, National Wildlife Research Center, 2007

March 19, 2012: Springtime Invasions

With no winter weather to speak of this year in South Florida, spring has arrived early. Itís already hot and the non-natives are restless. Floridians are beginning to notice some interesting species.

For example, the Egyptian Goose has been a permanent visitor to the state since the 1960s. However, recently their numbers have exploded and the birds are breeding like mad in several counties. Residents of suburban neighborhoods are developing the kind of love-hate relationships we tend to form with new species that enter our space and, sometimes, take it over. Egyptian Geese have been feral in Great Britain and other European countries for years now, where they are considered a nuisance species. Here in Florida, people complain that the big birds honk all night, probably while mating. They poop a lot, land on roofs, and flock onto golf courses in the middle of games. Muscovy ducks, move over.

The Egyptian Goose is native to Africa. A member of the duck, goose, and swan family, Egyptian Geese are so colorful and unique they are unmistakable. Brown, rusty red and tan with dark markings on the eye and bill, the geese have bright pink legs and feet. They travel in flocks and tend to mate for life.

Cuban Tree Frog   Cuban Tree Frog
Cuban Tree Frogs

Tree frogs from Cuba and other Caribbean islands are also numerous in South Florida. This pale little tree frog was nestled in a bush in a suburban yard.

Tree frogs are arboreal, living hidden in vegetation, only descending to the ground to mate and spawn. They are small, light enough to sit on twigs, and some can change color to camouflage themselves, making it hard to spot this one in the foliage.

March 1, 2012: Peacocks to be Evicted from Boynton Beach*

Peacocks are male peafowl, huge, gorgeous birds of vast cultural significance. Hindus honored the peacock as a symbol of love and compassion. In Christianity, the peacock was once a symbol of eternal life. A relative of the pheasant, peafowl are native to Asia. They are not native to the U.S.

Everyone agrees that they're beautiful birds, especially when they proudly fan and display their wildly colorful tails. But the lovely peacock can cause tempers to flare when there are hundreds of them living in a suburban community. Alone and in flocks, the non-native birds will strut around from yard to yard, loudly squawking and pooping everywhere. They bang on doors, jump on roofs, and are known to scream all night during mating season.

One Boynton Beach development is attempting to deal with an increasingly annoying overpopulation of peafowl. Twenty years ago, there were only a couple dozen living in the neighborhood. Someone had imported the birds and set them free in the Boynton development in order to attract home buyers.

Many peafowl generations later, the community is in turmoil. Some folks love the birds, some hate them, and most are wondering just what to do about the 400 non-natives stalking the neighborhood. They've become a nuisance and the focus of controversy.

In early February, the homeowners' association weighed a proposal from a trapper who would charge $6000 to capture around half of the wild birds and euthanize them. After the media picked up on the story, outraged reactions from the public influenced the neighborhood association to alter their extermination plans. They now intend to remove the birds and place them with groups offering sanctuary, including the Humane Society.

The removal process is set to begin this month.

Miami had a similar problem with too many peacocks living in Coconut Grove. Area residents were advised to institute birth control measures by stealing peafowl eggs whenever the peahens left their nests. Each spring, the female peahen lays 2 to 6 eggs and sits on them for 30 days. This is a good time to remove the next generation and slow down the population growth.

In some countries, peacock eggs are considered a delicacy. There are recipes on the internet for a number of fancy dishes featuring the extra-extra-large egg.

*"Feral peacock population explodes in Boynton Beach neighborhood," Huffington Post, February 15, 2012; "Neighborhood wants peafowl gone," UPI.com, February 15, 2012; Evan Axelbank, "Compromise reached in debate over peacocks," WPTV.com, February 21, 2012

February 22, 2012: The venomous snake next door*

One never knows what the guy next door has for pets. Until the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission comes by and takes them into custody.

Last month, FWC acted on a tip and made a visit to an apartment complex in Boca Raton. The resident in question admitted to housing a number of venomous snakes in his apartment. None were permitted. He also kept a small alligator in his home, which is illegal in the state of Florida. All of the animals were seized; the gator was released into the wild, the snakes taken to a local licensed facility for reptiles.

The list of dangerous reptiles in this South Florida apartment included a Puff Adder (Bitis arietans), a viper that causes the most fatalities from snake bite in Africa. When disturbed, this stout snake will hiss, striking suddenly and at great speed. The venom is extremely potent.

The Boca Raton man also had a Red Spitting Cobra, a gorgeous salmon-red snake from eastern Africa. Survivors from the toxic bite of this reptile can be disfigured from facial numbness. His Uracoan Rattlesnake, a large snake from Venezuela, also packs a poisonous punch. He also owned two False Cobras, hyperaggressive snakes that imitate a cobra when threatened.

Anyone bitten by these snakes would require antivenin from a rescue center with access to just the right cure. Exposure to exotic reptiles can result in a reaction that is difficult to treat if local hospitals do not carry the exact therapy required. This makes collecting rare, venomous snakes a very dangerous hobby. For the collector, his or her family, and the surrounding community. When such pets are registered and licensed, local authorities can keep track of foreign animals in our midst and, hopefully, keep us safe from them.

An apartment hiding a bunch of poisonous snakes and a juvenile American alligator, however, poses a serious threat to public safety. Who wants to live next door to that?

*David Fleshler, "Red-spitting cobra, other venomous snakes seized in Boca Raton," Sun Sentinel, January 25, 2012

January 18, 2012: U.S. bans four constrictor snakes*

Better late than never. On January 17, the federal government finally announced a ban on the import and interstate transportation of Burmese Pythons. This is good news for Floridians. In a state overrun by invasion issues with a variety of non-native animals, residents are tired of reading about locals having close encounters with giant constrictor snakes.

In addition to the Burmese Python, which is flourishing in the Everglades, the U.S. government has outlawed the import and interstate trade of three other species considered high risk for establishing populations in the U.S.: the Northern and Southern African Rock Python, and the Yellow Anaconda. These four species of very large constrictor snakes, their offspring and eggs, can no longer be brought into the U.S. for commercial trade purposes. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the python ban at a news conference held in the Everglades: "We must do all we can to battle its spread." The new legislation actually received bipartisan support in Congress, a marvel in itself.

Sixty days after the rule is published, the import of these snakes will no longer be legal and transport across state lines will not be allowed. Purchasing these snakes as pets, only to later dump them in Florida, will soon become a thing of the past.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering other species that may need to be banned. Boas and Reticulated Pythons are under consideration. Suggestions that would surely please Floridians include Green Anacondas, Nile Monitor Lizards, and iguanas. We have enough exotic species that have taken up residence in our state. It would be a relief to know that some non-native pets are no longer legal here.

*"U.S. to ban invasive snake species," UPI Science News, January 17, 2012; Richard Simon, "Threatened by giant snakes, U.S. will ban import of 4 species," Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2012

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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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