Earlier this month, the Palm Beach Zoo in Florida hosted their Second Annual Exotic Pet Amnesty Day. It was an event in which owners of exotic non-native critters turned over their animals with no penalties or questions asked. Some people acquired these pets and then found their needs were too difficult to meet. Other owners were facing life changes that prevented them from keeping their beloved pets. Whatever the reason, these folks made the unselfish decision to turn in their pets to give them a better life. Once surrendered, these animals were given to homes that had been prescreened and qualified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to care for the specific species. This year the animals that were turned over included birds, reptiles, skunks, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, a fennec fox, lemur, and a kinkajou. The goal of the Amnesty Day is to find the animal a proper home and ultimately keep it from being turned out into the wild. Too many people simply release animals in the environment when they become difficult to handle. With its warm climate, Florida is an ideal place for these critters to thrive, but their invasion is causing disastrous results to the native species.
One could say that the worst invasive species Florida is facing arrived about 500 years ago. Humans from the Old World “discovered” North America and began changing everything in their path. But Florida is now becoming overrun with invasive critters who have either escaped or been set loose in the wilderness. These creatures compete with the indigenous animals for territory and resources, and the result has been catastrophic. It’s believed that there are more species of non-native reptiles breeding in the state than native ones. Burmese pythons are quickly overtaking the Everglades, and there is not much to stop them. They can grow over seventeen feet in length and have no natural predator here in Florida, so they are reproducing quickly and pushing themselves to the top of the food chain. Wading birds, opossums, and bobcats have been decimated by the reptiles. Even alligators have been preyed upon. The Everglades is home to many threatened and endangered species, and these snakes are hastening their decline. It has been estimated that almost all marsh rabbits, foxes, and raccoons in Everglades National Park have been killed off by this new predator. In a classic example of closing the barn door after the horse bolted, Florida finally imposed a ban on the acquisition of Burmese Pythons in 2010, but it was a bit too late to stop the problem. Hunters can kill the snakes, but they are almost impossible to find. A 2013 challenge hunt only brought in 68 of an estimated thousands of the reptiles!
Floridians don’t have to venture into the Everglades to see the problem. Housing developments have been pushed so far into the glades that the critters—both native and invasive—are crawling in the backyards of what used to be their homes. But on a daily basis we see exotic bufo toads, iguanas, tegus, lizards, snakes, parrots, wild hogs, and odd mammals roaming our neighborhoods. Besides pushing out the native species, they can be deadly to beloved pets. Many dog owners have faced the heartbreak of losing their pup to the bufo toad’s toxin. Dogs—being typical dogs—chase after the huge toad. If they try to bite it, they wind up ingesting the lethal toxin on the toad’s skin.
We human invaders are here to stay. But being human, we can at least understand the consequences we have had on the environment and work to keep our beautiful state sustainable for the future. I, for one, want my grandchildren to have clean water to drink and enjoy long after I am gone. I want them to see a gorgeous Florida sunrise and sunset and watch great blue herons fly low over the water seeking their roosts for the night. I want my descendants to marvel at a bobcat, slow down for a gopher tortoise, admire the pink feathers of a roseate spoonbill, and coo at a Mama opossum carrying her babies. But this won’t happen if people keep releasing their unwanted exotic critters into our Florida ecosystems. The native species will not survive the onslaught.
So thank you to those who responsibly turned in your precious pets. I’m sure the decision was difficult, but rest assured you have made the right choice for both your animal and the Florida environment. And thank you to those who were approved to adopt the pets. You are tasked now with caring for these critters, and I hope you have many happy years together.