Florida Trying to Keep Exotic Animals Out of Everglades

Sabreena Dumas, 23, made the drive from Miami to "Exotic Pet Amnesty Day" at Tree Tops Park in Davie, Fla., to surrender a sunburst-colored lizard. She got it from the owner of a reptile store in Hollywood, Fla. He was going to release it into the wild.
by | October 22, 2012
 

They came with Burmese pythons, Nile monitor lizards and an African gray parrot. Critters of every creed: mammals, reptiles and birds. Many of them were pets that were no longer friendly.

Sabreena Dumas, 23, made the drive from Miami to "Exotic Pet Amnesty Day" at Tree Tops Park in Davie, Fla., to surrender a sunburst-colored lizard. She got it from the owner of a reptile store in Hollywood, Fla. He was going to release it into the wild.

"I didn't even know what it was," Dumas said. "I knew it was something I wasn't supposed to have."

She held on to it for two days, then brought the small reptile in a plastic container to the pet adoption Saturday, after she noticed an ad on craigslist.

Larry Connor, who maintains the exotic species database for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, couldn't identify Dumas' lizard, which was about 10 inches long.

At first, he thought it was a Nile monitor lizard, an invasive species of reptile that plagued areas of Palm Beach County about a year ago, but no one was certain that's what it was.

"It's pretty subtle," Connor said.

Saturday's event was the 15th exotic pet amnesty day. Its purpose was to make sure people who tire of their exotic pets don't release them into the wild. Thousands of non-native species have invaded Florida's ecosystem, some of them former pets whose owners set them free because they couldn't or wouldn't care for them any longer, wildlife officials say.

Lisa Jameson, invasive species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it's not uncommon to come across species native to a habitat a world away. A few weeks ago a red-tailed boa constrictor was caught in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Reserve where she works. The snake is native to South America and the Caribbean.

"Once they invade those natural areas, they're out competing with other plants and animals for any resources that are needed," Jameson said. "Sometimes they just end up eating all of a food source for a particular species."

The exotic pet amnesty day is part of the solution to that problem.

People crowded under the white tent around 2:30 p.m. The event was about to begin.

"Are you guys ready?" Liz Barraco, the adoption coordinator, asked the smallish group.

People who wanted to take animals home had preregistered; in most cases, they had to have some experience in dealing with exotic animals. Then there was a lottery-type drawing to determine the order in which people would get to select their new pets. Two people at a time were allowed into the 10-feet trailer holding the adoptees they could choose from.

Ana Giaras, of west Miami, looked nervous. She had promised her son she would try and get him a Savannah monitor, a breed of lizard. There was only one.

Two men were called first. Then another two people were called before Giaras was. She had signed up for a gecko, or a monitor lizard.

"I walked in and the guy was taking the label off the box," Giaras, 45, said. She left without a new pet.

Many times, people don't leave with what they came for, Barraco said.

Joan Kohl, who runs a nature center in Corals Springs, had her eyes on the Savannah monitor, a rabbit and a tiny hedgehog. She left with a tortoise.

The hedgehog "would have made a great addition to our collection," Kohl said. "I guess that's what happens when you go into that magic booth."

Dino C., a Coral Springs man who wouldn't give his full name, intended to walk away with the female Burmese python, a mate for the two male pythons he has at home. But the snake was too small to live with his pythons. He left with a male iguana instead.

About 37 pets were adopted Saturday. Every pet was taken, except the unidentified lizard. None was euthanized, Barraco said.

"I'm an animal match-maker," Barraco said. "It's just an animal match-making service."

The next event is on Nov. 3 in Jacksonville, Fla.

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