Iguanas and Lizards
Exotic Snakes
Exotic Birds
Other Exotic Animals
The Book
Students & Teachers

Exotic mammal species breeding in Florida include:
  • Vervet Monkeys
  • Rhesus Monkeys
  • Squirrel Monkeys
  • Feral Cats
  • Feral Dogs
  • Feral Goats
  • Feral Pigs
  • Coyotes
  • Red Fox
  • White-nosed Coati
  • Black-tailed Jackrabbits
  • Iguana Invasion

    Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

    and what to do about them

    Prairie Dog
    Prairie Dog

    Other Exotic Animals

    Other Exotic Pets on the Run

    According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, more than 250 exotic species have been reported in the wild in our state since cataloguing began in the 1800s. Some of these non-native species were brought here to serve as farm animals, like the wild pigs introduced to the state by the early Spanish settlers. However, most of the exotic residents in Florida are released pets and their offspring.

    Some of the populations of exotic animals in Florida have died out. Other populations are expanding. A few of the rapidly growing species are threatening to human safety and/or our environment, so these animals often receive media attention. Most Floridians are well aware of the dangers posed by Nile Monitors and Burmese Pythons, and the trouble caused by iguanas and Muscovy Ducks.

    Other exotic pets on the loose in Florida that many residents remain unaware of include a common pet turtle, small alligators called Spectacled Caimans, a giant toad, a toxic aquarium fish, three species of monkeys, prairie dogs, and a giant African rat.

    Red-eared Slider Turtles

    The most common pet turtle sold in the U.S., these little green reptiles can be identified by the bright red slash mark behind each eye. Also known as “pond sliders,” these turtles do not live in sea water but can make a home in brackish water. They prefer to reside near fresh water rivers, canals, ponds, and lakes. They live in the water and lay their eggs on land. Babies are eaten by birds, crabs and other predators, but the adults have few predators in Florida.

    Native to the Mississippi River, the Red-eared Slider is the most widespread non-marine turtle in the world. This is because they are such common and commonly released pets. Since they compete with native turtles wherever they are released, the Red-eared Slider is regarded as one of the most common nuisance species in the world. Most of the world’s Red-eared Sliders come from stock bred on turtle farms in the U.S., where millions of turtles are raised for the international pet trade.
    Red-eared Slider Turtle

    If the pet turtle doesn’t die while still a juvenile, it grows too large for a typical home aquarium and often finds itself “set free” in a foreign habitat. The negative impact of invasive Red-eared Sliders on native habitat has been reported worldwide. Many countries have banned pet turtles from import, including the European Union.

    In Florida, the Red-eared Slider is interbreeding with native turtle species. Recently, breeding these pet turtles was outlawed in the state and ownership is now regulated. However, most parents who decide to buy their children a cute little pet turtle do not understand the laws and the reasons for them.

    Potential pet owners are also unaware of the fact that turtles bred on turtle farms may carry salmonella, a disease-causing bacteria. Children, elderly people, and those with immune system illnesses should not handle such pets with their bare hands.

    Spectacled Caiman

    Like alligators and crocodiles, the Spectacled Caiman is a reptile of considerable size. A carnivore, these five- and six-foot long alligators can eat full-grown prey including turtles, snakes, big fish and small mammals. Unlike the American Alligator and the American Crocodile, the Spectacled Caiman is not native to Florida.

    Native to Central America and northern South America, the Spectacled Caimans in the wild in Florida are escaped pets and their offspring. Once released into the wild, these secretive reptiles will hide in culverts and weedy canals, sunning themselves in the warmth of South Florida. Cold temperatures will kill them.
    Spectacled Caiman
    Spectacled Caimans have been reported living in the Everglades, a popular dumping ground for disappointing pets. The pet trade sells the baby gators as fun little animals, but adult Spectacled Caimans are feisty and fierce. They bite. During nesting and breeding seasons, they become unruly and hostile. They do not make good pets. In an attempt to control the exotic caiman population in the state, buyers are required by law to obtain a permit for personal ownership.

    If you see a large gator in your yard or neighborhood, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Nuisance Alligators Hotline: 1-866-392-4286. It is difficult to differentiate a Spectacled Caiman from a native alligator, but either way, you should report your sighting. Large reptiles are dangerous on the loose in suburban neighborhoods.

    Giant Toads

    When insects were devastating the sugarcane fields of Florida during the 1930s, the state imported bug-eating toads. More toads were brought in during the 1940s and again in the 1950s. Pet stores sold them to children.

    Now called the Giant Toad or Cane Toad, this huge amphibian is native to South America, Central America, and southernmost Texas along the Mexican border. The largest toad in the world, Cane Toads are typically six to nine inches in length. These toads are carnivores and will eat baby birds, small lizards and snakes. They prey on smaller toads and frogs. They like dog and cat food, and will forage in garbage cans for table scraps.
    Cane Toad

    Like all toads, the Cane Toad has glands that secrete toxins for use in attacking prey and foe. The Cane Toad’s toxin is powerful and can prove fatal to dogs and other small animals.

    These toads have spread to 20 counties, where they outcompete native frogs and toads for food and territory. They are prolific breeders and the population is wildly out of control. In South Florida, veterinarians treat dogs with Cane Toad poisoning on a regular basis.

    To keep these huge toads away from your pets, make sure you keep them out of your yard. When you erect a fence, be sure to embed it deep in the lawn. Never feed pets outside or leave food in the yard.

    Aquarium Escapees

    Many of the exotic animals found in U.S. waters came from aquariums. A variety of non-native fish, snails and other animals have been able to adapt to life in the wild, especially in the warm waters available around the state of Florida. There is a variety of exotic species from aquariums living in our lakes, ponds, canals, rivers, and ocean waters.

    For example, the Red Lionfish is a native of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A large fish that weighs more than a pound, this bright striped fish is a real beauty. People like to show them off in their home aquariums. They are fun to watch and most pet owners are unaware that the Red Lionfish can be trouble.
    Red Lionfish

    Venomous glands in the fin spines produce potent toxins, and a sting from one of these exotic fish can cause pain, tingling, headache, vomiting and heart palpitations. The sting of the Red Lionfish is dangerous.

    In recent years, this exotic fish has been reported off the coast of Palm Beach and Jacksonville. The numbers sighted in the Atlantic have been increasing rapidly. These fish outcompete native fish for food, and they consume the various species that keep our endangered coral reefs clean.

    Wildlife biologists are concerned about the growing population of Red Lionfish. If you see one when swimming or snorkeling, report your sighting to the US Geological Service.

    This is only one of a number of species dumped in our waters by residents unaware of the serious consequences of their actions. Pet owners are releasing fresh water fish, salt water fish, snails and other aquarium species from around the globe, and some are thriving. This poses an unseen threat to Florida’s native wildlife.

    If you have an aquarium in need of a new owner, donate it to a local pet shop, school, office building or friend. Never dump your fish in any body of fresh water or sea water in our state.

    If your kids want to own an aquarium, convince them to do some research first. Tell them to find out what it will take to own and operate a successful aquarium. You might want to buy them a book, too: Iguana Invasion! Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida explains in simple words and photos what your children need to learn about the consequences of exotic pet ownership in our state.

    Monkey Business

    There are three species of monkeys living and breeding in several areas in the state of Florida:
    • Vervet Monkeys
    • Rhesus Monkeys (also called macaques)
    • Squirrel Monkeys
    Troops of Vervet Monkeys have been living in the Fort Lauderdale area since the 1950s. The original pets belonged to a tourist attraction, but they either escaped or were abandoned. These medium-sized monkeys weigh up to 17 pounds and are good climbers, jumpers, and swimmers. They invade crops, eating the flowers, leaves and fruits, and they feast on birds’ eggs. They will eat human food and can become real pests.

    Troops of monkeys are noisy and large. Dozens of monkeys in a suburban neighborhood are definitely a nuisance, especially when they eat up all the fruit, seeds, insects and small animals, then turn to humans for handouts. But Rhesus Monkeys can pose a more serious threat. Permitting is required to own a Rhesus Monkey in the state of Florida, but many pet owners are unaware of this law.

    Rhesus Monkeys are often used in medical experiments and can carry fatal diseases. Thousands of these monkeys were kept on two private islands in the Florida Keys until public complaints forced the medical research corporation responsible to move them. Macaques are currently a popular pet in the Miami area, where owners do not realize they may carry a deadly hepatitis virus. Since the virus does not make the monkey ill, pet owners are unaware of the danger. Exotic mammals can prove especially dangerous because humans are susceptible to the diseases carried by monkeys and other mammals.

    Several troops of macaques have been living in Central Florida along the Silver River since the 1930s. Escapees from an old tourist attraction, they sometimes behave aggressively to hikers and boaters. Additional macaques have been reported living in colonies in Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

    Squirrel Monkeys are also on the loose in several counties in Florida. These little rainforest animals are excellent climbers and jumpers, impossible to recapture once they are let go in the wild. Only 10 inches tall and weighing less than 2 pounds, Squirrel Monkeys can travel in loud troops of 500 or more.

    Releasing exotic pets is illegal but common when small petting zoos and roadside attractions find they are unable to sell off their unwanted animals. Individual pet owners also may dump an aggressive juvenile monkey once their cute little baby develops the more hostile personality of a typical 3- or 4-year-old monkey. This is unfair to the animal. Monkeys do not belong in our homes. They should be living in the open areas and rainforests to which they are native.

    Certain European nations have outlawed private ownership for monkeys and other wild animals that may infect humans with diseases. We should do the same here in Florida. You can protest the ongoing sales of pet monkeys and other problematic species in the state of Florida by sharing your opinion with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Email your letter to: Commissioners@myfwc.com.

    In the meantime, if you have a monkey and wish to find a new home for your pet, do not let it loose. Check out the details about Exotic Pet Amnesty Days hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: www.myfwc.com. Or bring the animal back to the pet store where you purchased it.

    If you ever see a monkey on the loose in your neighborhood, call 911. Never attempt to capture the monkey or feed it. Monkeys are wild animals and they will bite.

    Prairie Dogs and Gambian Pouch Rats

    Prairie dogs are native to the western states, and were first brought to Florida in the 1970s during a brief pet fad. Once the craze wore off, many were released in the wild. Prairie dogs dig in the soil constantly, which is a necessary function in their native ecosystem. Here in Florida, these burrowing mammals are out of place.

    In 1995, five cases of plague were reported, each associated with prairie dog pets. A few years later, prairie dog pet owners were sickened with a disease caused tularemia. In 2005, pet store prairie dogs were infected with monkeypox, a rare African virus. Trade and sale of prairie dogs were banned in the U.S. In 2008, the ban was lifted. Recently, a teacher in Palm Beach County was bitten by a prairie dog burrowing on school grounds.

    The world’s largest rat is the Gambian Pouch Rat, an African rodent the size of a raccoon. For a few years sales were banned due to outbreaks of monkeypox. A handful of the pet rats were released on Grassy Key, where they have established a breeding population.

    Biologists warn that, if Gambian Pouch Rats reach the mainland, ecological damage may occur. These huge rodents will outcompete native animals for food and territory. And these animals can carry diseases that pose risks to humans. If you own a prairie dog or Gambian Pouch Rat, do not let it loose. Check out the details about Exotic Pet Amnesty Days hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: www.myfwc.com. Or bring the animal back to the pet store where you purchased it. Find a home for your pet.

    Gambian Pouch Rat

    Exotic Pets

    Let’s face it, wild animals do not make good pets. They may become aggressive and can bite. Some carry serious, even fatal diseases. It is difficult to feed them properly and care is expensive, especially as the animal reaches adult size.

    A life in captivity is not good for animals. They do not receive the sunlight, nutrition and exercise they need. Species can have trouble adjusting to a non-native climate, and they do not like living in confinement. Many die in captivity. Wild animals should be left in their native habitat with members of their own species. In their natural habitats, wild animals fit specific ecosystems and help to maintain environmental balance.

    Animals are not here specifically for our entertainment pleasure. Are we so selfish that we think the many wild animals on our planet exist solely to amuse us and our children?

    The international pet trade is a massive wealth-producing industry. Every year, hundreds of millions of animals are imported legally and smuggled illegally into the U.S. The popularity of imported pets is growing and new pet fads are introduced on a regular basis. Pet dealers and breeders always have interesting new animals to sell. Whenever these pets lose popularity, non-native animals are released in the parks and woods around the U.S.

    Here in Florida, some of these animals are surviving. Some are breeding. Some have become a nuisance. Others are invasive and pose a threat to the health and safety of our state.

    Next time your children ask for a new and exciting pet, you can buy them a book instead. Iguana Invasion! Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida explains in simple words and photos what your children need to learn about the consequences of exotic pet ownership in our vulnerable state. Your family may decide not to bring a wild animal into your home, a wise and safe decision for you and for Florida.

    Website by FCE Web Design

    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!