Christmas critters: Parents buying exotic pets as gifts for kids

[The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.]

By Shannon Winslow-Claunch, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.

Released : Sunday, December 20, 2009 12:41 PM

Dec. 20–Don’t know what to get little Johnny for Christmas? In an age of commercialism and numbness to the mundane, some parents might be tempted to wow their kids this year with the gift of an exotic pet.

Pet stores encourage consumers to do their own research when it comes to adding any pet to the family. But with easy access to baby turtles and parakeets at mall kiosks, impulse buys at Christmas for all sorts of animals have become commonplace.

Katrina Workman, who works at PetSmart on 23rd Street in Panama City, owns a variety of animals, including snakes, which have been a key concern in Florida for some time. A mother of three girls, she said her snakes, guinea pigs, parakeets, lizards, dogs and cats all add joy to her household.

“The warm-blooded mammals associate with family members in the same way that they relate to their own kind, and the reptiles get so excited when we feed them little meal worms,” Workman said. “Each one really has its own personality.”

Any pet is considered exotic if it is not native to the area, according to Jeremy Hainus, manger of PetSupermarket on 23rd Street. He advises customers to find out what their children want for Christmas, because parents will need to take care of the pet if the child does not take responsibility for the animal.

PetSmart’s Leah Owens has worked the Christmas rush before, as the store often is busy Dec. 23 and Christmas Eve with parents buying pets for their children. Many parents might opt to buy a tank habitat and gift card to leave under the Christmas tree, according to Hainush. When the children are participants in choosing the gift, they tend to be more responsible caregivers, he said.

Ferrets, naturally inquisitive and playful, and guinea pigs are some of the top sellers this year. According to Hainush, the Disney film “G-Force” inspired many consumers to opt for small mammals as additions to their family.

In the movie, a specially trained squad of guinea pigs is dispatched to stop a diabolical billionaire from taking over the world. Real ferrets and guinea pigs don’t wear night vision goggles or carry heavy artillery however, so parents may find their well-intentioned gifts soon lose their appeal.

PetSmart manager Tara Butler showed off some of the birds for sale. Parakeets and conures fluttered about and chirped wildly. She said some consumers get them home and don’t realize how loud they are in a home setting.

And buyer beware, as store warranties vary from one to two weeks depending on place of purchase.

Stephanie Willard, the director of education at ZooWorld, said that while the staff all adores the exotics they take care of, they absolutely do not make good gifts.

Parrots can live 50 years, and that is not an average commitment people usually want to make.

Lions, tigers and iguanas

A tiger or mountain lion might not be on most Christmas lists, but some Bay County residents have welcomed predatory big cats into their lives. Stan Kirkland, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said several Bay Countians are registered owners of tigers and mountain lions, and a number of Southport residents have permits for cougars, and even a Siberian tiger, said Kirkland.

Willard said big cats do not make good pets in any situation, citing the danger from a large predators. Zoos serve to educate and breed, but as a pet in someone’s home, the novelty wears off and the cats become unmanageable. Willard said pet owners rely on zoos as sanctuary for their unwanted cats and there isn’t always room — then the animals must be euthanized.

As an alternative to purchasing a big cat, the nonprofit ZooWorld offers the Adopt a Wild Child Program. “If you want to ‘adopt a lion,’ a person can donate to their care,” Willard said.

While the state restricts public access in zoos to predatory cats, there are some levels of donation that allow close encounters, such as with serval kittens.

Even iguanas have served as pets. Kirkland knows a Panama City homeowner with a large one.

“All that separates the animal from passersby is a patio screen,” he said.

Iguanas can make good pets, but there are health risks the animal might face if its habitat is not conducive to its natural needs, according to Serious health concerns for captive iguanas include metabolic bone disease, kidney disease, broken tails, nose rubbing, egg binding and male aggression.

Hainush said if parents want to try their hand at lizards, a good start is the bearded dragon, which is sometimes called the puppydog lizard. But, he reiterated, animals of any breed should never be an impulse buy. Any pet’s habitat should mimic their natural environment to keep the pet healthy and happy

“If consumers are not willing to make that commitment, we discourage them from making a purchase,” he said.

Dogs and cats end up at area shelters, but the agencies are not equipped to care for reptiles, birds and small mammals that become castoffs.

Amy Cox runs “Odd Animal Rescue” and considers herself an advocate for pets that are no longer wanted. She places them with families who will properly care for them and keeps many hard-to-place animals at her Panama City home. To contact Cox about adopting or relinquishing ownership of an animal, call 628-1502.

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Copyright (c) 2009, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.

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Where to find an exotic pet

December 14, 2009 3:23 PM ET


Growing up, the only pet I wanted to own was a Mogwai.

The adorable singing, baby-squawking, furry little star of Gremlins had everything I could want in a pet — a cuddly and unique alternative to the average cat or dog that I was sure I could manage, even with all those pesky rules to keep my little guy from birthing or turning into, literally, a monster.

Of course, my dream wasn’t a reality, but it fell in line with the concept of owning a pet monkey or playing with tigers and even alligators. Movies and television shows dedicated to the alien and unusual species of animals around the world brought these creatures directly into our local Cineplex and living rooms, romanticizing the idea of calling these animals our own. And who doesn’t recall that indelible image of Michael Jackson and his beloved chimp, Bubbles?

It’s that idea that helped spur the market for exotic animals as pets. From the “Sugar Glider” Joey and badgers to literally lions and tigers and bears, the market for exotic pets is wide open and business is booming. You may not find these critters at Petsmart (PETM) or PetCo (CENTA), but here’s where you can hunt them down.

Where the Wild Things Are

The exotic and wild animal trade industry in the United States is conservatively estimated to be worth $15 billion annually, according to the Humane Society. The trade in wild animals worldwide is worth many billions of dollars.

And the variety of species is astounding. Interested in a hedgehog (around $125), hyena (roughly $5,000), or kangaroo (about $1,800)? No problem. Looking for a serval — described by one seller as an unusually small wildcat (males get up to 45 pounds) adapted for hunting prey in African tall grass that feeds chiefly on large rodents or birds? It’s available (for just $2,500!).

Besides reptiles and birds, monkeys have become one of the more popular exotic pets of choice.

“Monkeys are probably what I sell the most of,” said Mac Stoutz, owner and operator of “Capuchins, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and Macaques … there is a very wide variety of clientele, from families that have several kids to those who can’t have kids. I’ve sold them to couples whose last child went off the college and they had the empty nest syndrome.”

An Unfriendly Pet

State laws vary greatly, but most people can easily find an exotic pets dealer like Stoutz via any quick online search. Animals can range in cost from a few hundred dollars to thousands for large breeds like tigers and baboons. Based on statistics from the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, estimates of such creatures currently here in the United States include at least 3,000 nonhuman great apes, 5,000 to 7,000 tigers, 10,000 to 20,000 large cats, 17.3 million birds, and 8.8 million reptiles.

Among those reptiles are Burmese pythons, which have become a serious problem in Florida. In July, 2-year-old Shaiunna Hare was strangled to death in her crib by a nine-foot Burmese python kept as a pet, illegally, in her house near Orlando. Since then, legislators and animal rights activists are trying to get a handle on the thousands of pythons that are pervading the Everglades.

“There are these huge yellow pythons that are too big to be handled, and they wreak havoc on the native wildlife,” said Don Anthony, communications director for Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. “The basic problem with exotics is that first of all, simply based on the word itself, they don’t belong here.” Providing the right care, housing, diet, and maintenance that exotic animals require can be overwhelming. Animals like pythons that prove too difficult for owners to care for have been known to languish in cages or small pens in backyards or are often abandoned or killed. Malnutrition, stress, trauma, and behavioral disorders are common, according to the ASPCA. Medical care can also be a problem in that not all veterinarians are like zoo vets and they don’t have the ability to handle exotic animals. And sometimes symptoms are difficult to detect.

There’s No Place Like Home

While many of these exotic animals are bred here (including Stoutz’s monkeys), those that aren’t usually hold on to the instincts they learned in their natural environments. According to the ASPCA, monkeys, birds, and wildcats normally travel several miles in a single day in their natural habitat and big cats like tigers need major territory to roam, something the average backyard can’t provide.

“People see these animals when they’re small and just a few inches long and then they get bigger and bigger and they don’t know how to take care of them or feed them,” Anthony said. “It’s not fair to owners or the animals themselves.”

A lot of states, including Florida and Michigan, will offer exotic pet amnesty days throughout the year, where owners who can no longer handle their rare animals can drop them off with authorities, who turn them over to professional caretakers.

And that’s also why Stoutz is careful about what he sells to whom.

“I’ve had someone offer me $12,000 for a tiger and I wouldn’t sell it to them,” Stoutz said. “Larger animals like a lion or a tiger, if I get it from a zoo, it’ll go to another zoo, because I just don’t feel like someone should have a lion. It’s just an accident waiting to happen. And most people don’t have what it takes to take care of an animal that size.”

Stoutz also says that although he tries to stay on top of state laws, most potential buyers need to do the same. “A Capuchin monkey is $7,000. Nobody wants to buy a monkey, bring it home, fall in love with it, and three months later have authorities come and take it away from you and now that agency has to find a home for it.”

Beyond a state’s requirements, one also has to consider the possible risk of disease, as most animal organizations point out. Many exotic animals can carry diseases, such as hepatitis B, salmonella, monkeypox, and rabies, which are communicable — and can be fatal — to humans, according to the national animal advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA.

Still, the fact remains that proper channels are in place in states all across the country for those looking to own an exotic pet, so the trade goes on. Stoutz lauds Florida laws that essentially require a specific class of permit depending on what animal a person has, which allows the state to basically document every exotic pet in its vicinity. And yet, everyone seems to agree that there are still people that own these animals illegally.

“I’m sure there are plenty of people in California who have monkeys that aren’t supposed to,” Stoutz said. California is among states with the strictest rules against exotic pet ownership. “I’m sure there are plenty of monkeys in places they shouldn’t be. But if somebody wants something bad enough, they’re going to get it.”

This story was written by Danielle Samaniego for Divine Caroline.


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The Exotic Menace: When pets become problems

December 14, 2009

The Exotic Menace

When pets become problems
Environment Writer

Dressed for battle in wetsuits, masks and fins, four volunteers waded into Blue Spring early one morning to catch and remove invasive armored catfish thought to harass Florida manatees and damage the spring’s sandy banks.

They quickly piled a canoe high with the bony plated fish, more than 800 in just a few hours. They had done the same thing just two weeks earlier.

After removing thousands of catfish during the past eight years, Melissa Gibbs, an assistant professor of biology at Stetson University, has begun to wonder if her quest is a losing battle.

“There are still just as many,” Gibbs said. Even more frustrating to those who care about the natural environment, the catfish are only a small part of a much larger problem. Florida faces a growing invasion by exotic animals that escaped into the wild or were released by their owners.

More than 150 former pet or aquarium species not only survive but thrive in the state’s temperate climate. That includes five of the 37 fish species found in Blue Spring. Everglades National Park has three times that many exotic fish.

Elsewhere in South Florida, monk parakeet nests foul utility poles and lines, costing utility customers thousands in outages and repairs. And in Cape Coral, Nile monitor lizards eat native burrowing owls.

In Volusia and Flagler counties, more than a dozen pythons or boa constrictors, pets that either escaped or were released, have been found on the lam the past two years, as well as assorted iguanas and monitor lizards.

Dozens of creatures that started as pets threaten and compete with native plants and animals, cause scary encounters with people and raise a host of complex issues surrounding captive wildlife ownership. Scientists, government officials and even many in the booming pet trade agree action is needed — and soon — to slow the flow of exotic animals to the woods and waters of Florida and the nation.

“Something has to be done to prevent these situations from occurring again; and to address the problems on the ground that exist right now,” said Jamie Reaser, member of the invasive species advisory committee to the National Invasive Species Council and adviser to the national Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.

Scientists and government officials say the industry needs better regulations to improve scrutiny of exotics and determine which species can be safely imported. Other ideas include limiting species that could be owned as pets, building public awareness of the problems and costs, educating pet owners and enacting stiffer penalties for people who don’t follow the rules.

One problem is clear.

Far too many people dispose of unwanted pets by taking the animals to the nearest woods “singing ‘Born Free’ and letting it go,” said Gary Nichols, an invasive species coordinator for the St. Johns River Water Management District. He often finds released pets on district-owned lands.


The problem isn’t new. Animals have been abandoned in Florida since the first Spanish explorers left behind pigs and other livestock. Escapees from early roadside attractions luring tourists with monkeys, parrots and other animals added to the problem.

But the variety and number of former pets found in the wild has increased dramatically, lending new urgency to the issue. Last summer, officials announced the Everglades is home to tens of thousands of Burmese pythons. In August, as a South Florida cable company worker leaned against a tree, he was bitten by a venomous green mamba and had to be rushed to the hospital.

Responsibility for regulating exotic pets and issuing captive wildlife permits in Florida falls to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The agency has gradually beefed up regulations designed to require more responsible pet ownership and reduce the number of exotics in the wild and is considering further changes.

The wildlife commission recently appointed an expert panel to look at the rules for its six reptiles of concern, including boa constrictors and Burmese pythons. The panel may consider requirements for better building standards for facilities that house venomous snakes or dangerous wildlife. Most scientists believe the snake situation in the Everglades began after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed several breeding facilities near Miami and allowed the inventory to escape into the wild.

Meanwhile, state senators have proposed at least two bills to rein in the trade, including one that would prohibit ownership of certain snakes. For some, that seems the easiest answer.

“There’s no reason people need to have these things,” said John Malin, a community service officer in South Daytona who picked up two big boa constrictors in the past two years, as well as an assortment of iguanas and potbellied pigs. “If you want to see one of these, go to the zoo.”

Wildlife advocacy groups say state and federal legislators should limit ownership of the most dangerous pets, those with great potential to harm their owners or create havoc if released into the wild. Peter Jenkins, director of international conservation for the Defenders of Wildlife, said among 2,300 species now being imported into the country legally, only about 300 are considered dangerous. People should be able to find desirable pets among the remaining 2,000, he said.


Local pet dealers and representatives for the national Pet Council say they would probably support additional limits for some species. But the group favors better education of pet owners rather than regulation.

Animals that pose public health and safety risks, or an environmental risk, should be regulated under far more stringent standards than traditional animals and pets, said Marshall Meyers, chief executive officer for the Pet Council. But, he said, a broad-based reptile ban wouldn’t “do a thing” to help the Everglades or control thousands of animals already roaming free in Florida.

Banning a species can scare pet owners, spurring them to release animals into the wild, and denying them opportunities to make the right choices, Reaser said. “You’re going to end up with a whole lot of snakes out there that wouldn’t have been out there in the first place.”

That may be happening already. Some officials think they’ve seen an increase in released exotic animals since 2007 when the wildlife commission changed its rules to require $100 permits for reptiles of concern .

Either way, Florida still must find ways to cope with both existing and arriving exotics.

Officials with the wildlife commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say it’s hard to find money for eradication efforts. Scott Hardin, invasive species coordinator for the wildlife commission, hopes the state can create an early warning system and a response plan to go after breeding colonies when they’re discovered.

For example, they know they have a small but growing population of tegu lizards in Hillsborough and Polk counties they’d like to go after. They have people trying to “find a slice of time” but no resources to put a group of people out there to trap the lizards, he said. “It’s very frustrating.”

The “golden moment” for preventing an exotic animal invasion is to capture creatures when first discovered, said Stetson’s Gibbs. Animals may reproduce quickly and eradication becomes much more difficult and expensive.

“With a lot of the invasive species we have here and throughout the world, once they become established — reproducing and doing well — it’s virtually impossible to get rid of them,” Gibbs said.

As the case may prove with armored catfish and pythons, “once everyone is finally ready to do something about them, it’s usually too late.”

Balancing rights, responsibility of owning exotic snakes

Carl Barden has helped save countless lives through a life’s work that most people find more than a little creepy — extracting venom from some of the world’s deadliest snakes.

If a tolerant mother hadn’t let him have a snake as a youngster, Barden doubts his life would have taken this direction. Barden, director of the Reptile Discovery Center and Medtoxin Venom Laboratories in DeLand, produces venom used by pharmaceutical companies to manufacture life-saving anti-venins given to both human and pets bitten by poisonous snakes.

“It all started with a garter snake I had for a pet when I was 6,” Barden said. “Owning any animal is a window into a fascinating world of whatever it might be, whether it’s reptiles, amphibians, birds or fish.”

Many people involved with animals and the captive wildlife industry have similar stories and backgrounds. They say responsible ownership of such pets can encourage science careers and lead to a lifelong love of wildlife.

As former owners of large snakes, the authors of a recent U.S. Geological Survey report on giant constrictors in Florida would agree.

“The love of nature is often originally fostered in one’s own arms, where close contact with living things engenders a connection not otherwise possible,” the report states. “The social value of protecting native ecosystems must be weighed against the social value of fostering positive attitudes about the protection of nature through giant constrictor ownership.”

Finding a good balance is the challenge facing state and federal lawmakers as they consider rules to force more responsible pet ownership amid growing concerns over escaped and released exotic pets. Like the pet industry in general, local pet dealers do not favor proposals to ban ownership of many snake species.

“You have lawmakers wanting to do radical things about banning ownership and that’s not the answer,” said Larry Grosky, owner of Larry’s Reptile Farm in DeLeon Springs.

Also a lifelong reptile owner, he takes in unwanted reptiles, saving snakes, tortoises and iguanas from an uncertain future, either when he’s contacted by a pet owner or when wildlife officers bring him pets that have been confiscated from homes without proper licensing or found in the wild. It bothers him to find snakes that have been mistreated.

Just because a few people do something wrong, Grosky said, it shouldn’t mean everyone else who would like to own a big snake should be punished.

Grosky and Anthony Zaffuto, owner of the Mr. Petman store in South Daytona, support state rules that require permits for owning some snakes. To them, it seems a good compromise toward preventing problems while still allowing people to own wild animals.

“It’s one more hurdle you have to jump through,” Zaffuto said. “Hopefully that weeds out more people that would possibly let it into the wild.”

Exotic Pets in Florida

· Individuals and businesses in Florida have 5,475 current licenses and permits to keep captive wildlife in Florida, including 169 in Volusia and Flagler counties. The permits cover homes in residential neighborhoods, zoos, hotel lobbies and pet stores small and large, allowing exotic cats, birds, monkeys, apes and snakes of all varieties.

· In Flagler County, 19 permits are issued and in Volusia County, 150, including 46 permits for the annual reptile trade show at the Ocean Center.

· The only two local cities with no residents or businesses licensed for captive wildlife are Ponce Inlet and Flagler Beach.

· Ten permits in Volusia are for either reptiles of concern or venomous reptiles. None of those permits is issued in Flagler.

· Statewide, the permits include 456 licenses for game farms and 3,444 permits for exhibition and sale of wildlife.

· Nearly 20 percent of the 451 permits for reptiles of concern and venomous reptiles are in two South Florida counties. Miami-Dade has 53, and Broward has 28.

Federal Researchers Consider Risks from Big Snakes

Giant snakes, such as the constrictors and pythons found across South Florida, may pose a high risk to Florida’s natural areas and native species, a pair of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey has concluded. The scientists, Robert Reed and Gordon Rodda, who both have owned giant snakes as pets, examined the ecological risks posed by nine species of giant snakes. The species are considered “giant” constrictors because they can reach lengths of 20 feet or more. The report was released in late October. Here’s what it concluded:

Which snakes pose an “exceptional threat” to natural ecosystems?

Five of the nine, the Indian python, including subspecies known as the Burmese python, the Northern African python, the Southern African python, the boa constrictor and the yellow anaconda. They could be “extremely detrimental to native species” because they eat almost every type of land-dwelling vertebrate and may transmit serious diseases. Young snakes may climb trees and all can survive in urban areas.

How many species already are seen in South Florida?

Of the nine, three have established breeding populations: Burmese python, found across thousands of square miles of South Florida; Northern African python, found on the western boundaries of Miami; and boa constrictor, established south of Miami. The fourth, the yellow anaconda, is seen occasionally in the wilds around Big Cypress National Preserve.

Do they pose a human-safety risk?

Only a minimal risk is posed by the largest of adult snakes. Worldwide, nonvenomous snakes kill only a few people each year in the wild. Unprovoked fatalities have been attributed to three snakes in their native regions: reticulated pythons, Burmese and African pythons.

How many giant constrictors have been imported into the United States the past 30 years?

1 million, with about 60 percent of those boa constrictors. Also included are 300,000 Indian pythons, 150,000 reticulated pythons, 33,000 northern and southern African pythons, 13,000 green anacondas and fewer than 2,000 yellow anacondas. The total does not include any snakes bred and sold in this country. More Burmese pythons probably have been bred and sold here than imported. The risk comes not from import but from accidental or intentional releases into areas where big snakes can survive and thrive.

What areas of the mainland U.S. are most at risk from the snakes establishing breeding populations?

Florida and southern Texas.

Which species may be hardiest?

Burmese python is “exceptional” in its ability to tolerate cold weather through hibernation. Others may be able to survive short periods of below-freezing temperatures by going into the water or shallow burrows. Some snake experts dispute this view, saying the big snakes can’t take extreme cold and won’t move north of Central Florida.

How do the snakes reproduce?

Pythons lay eggs, possibly more than 100 at a time. Anacondas and boas bear live young.

Can an established snake population be eradicated?

Only if it’s done very early on a small population, for example a colony the size of the boa constrictor population in Miami. No eradication involving the scale of the Burmese python population in South Florida has ever been attempted on a snake species. Anacondas and pythons would be harder to eradicate because they can live in water.

Did the scientists consider another population of invasive snakes?

The brown tree snake in Guam. Introduced accidentally after World War II, it eliminated 10 of 12 native forest birds on the Pacific island, most of its bats and half its native lizards. As a result, the snake altered native ecological processes, such as pollination.

Various species of exotic animals

Island apple snail

Island apple snails were probably introduced to Florida in the 1980s by the aquarium pet trade. The snails expanded their range rapidly throughout the state. Floodwaters help relocate the snails, which grow nearly twice as large as the native apple snail and lay hundreds more eggs. Scientists say it has a voracious appetite and consider it a serious agriculture pest. So far, the only successful control method is hand removal of the snails and their large masses of pink eggs. Native apple snails leave white egg masses. Pink eggs should be scraped from trees and dropped in water, which keeps the eggs from hatching.

Cuban tree frog

A large native of the West Indies, the Cuban tree frog was first recorded in Miami in 1952. Found in Central Florida by the 1980s, it’s now confirmed in, at least, 36 counties. It may be tan, gray, brown or olive green in color and is commonly found in high places, such as in trees, on walls and above windows. It preys on smaller native tree frogs such as green tree frogs and squirrel tree frogs, as well as southern toads and southern leopard frogs. It excretes a noxious substance through its skin that makes it undesirable to some birds and snakes, but black racers, yellow rat snakes and barred owls have been seen eating the frog.

Eurasian collared dove

A western European game bird first released in the Bahamas in 1974. About 1,200 pairs were counted in Dade and Monroe counties by 1987. Now confirmed in every Florida county.

Nine-banded armadillo

This native of the southwestern United States arrived here in two ways. It expanded its range and also was introduced along Florida’s east coast in the 1920s and in southern Alabama in the 1960s. By the 1970s or early 1980s the two populations had merged and armadillos are now found in every county. Homeowners find them a nuisance when they dig up lawns looking for food. It is believed to threaten young reptiles and amphibians.

Vermiculated sailfin catfish

In the aftermath from Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, Melissa Gibbs walked on to the flooded swim dock at Blue Spring State Park and couldn’t believe her eyes. It was covered with about a “bazillion” larval catfish about 1 inch long, Gibbs said. “They’d just hatched, and they were just everywhere.” Covered with bony, armor-like plates, these are one of several “armored” catfish probably introduced by the release of aquarium fish into the wild. The fish, reaching lengths up to 20 inches and weighing up to 3.5 pounds, use their suction cup-like mouths to attach to objects and feed on algae. They create spawning burrows along shorelines that may cause banks to collapse and undermine the root system of trees.

Wild hog

Hogs arrived with early Florida colonists and are found throughout the state. Other wild boars also have been introduced over the years. The animals have serious impacts on native plants and wildlife, including sea turtles, gopher tortoises and shorebirds. They transmit diseases to native and domestic animals, including trichinosis, eastern equine encephalitis and bacterial brucellosis. However, they’re also considered prey for native species such as the panther, black bear and bobcat.

SOURCES: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, University of Florida, and Melissa Gibbs, Stetson University

About the Series

Plants and animals imported from around the world are changing Florida’s natural areas and threatening native species. In this series, The News-Journal looks at the problem and how it can be solved.

Sunday: Non-native species invade land, water

TODAY: Animals

Tuesday: Plants and pests

Wednesday: Where do we go from here?


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Was cougar killed in Minnesota wild- or captive-born?

Published December 12 2009

DNR: Bemidji cougar’s origin still unknown

DNA testing continues on a young male cougar killed by a car Sept. 18 in Bemidji, but early indications may be that a stranger was in our midst.

By: Sarah Smith, Park Rapids Enterprise

DNA testing continues on a young male cougar killed by a car Sept. 18 in Bemidji, but early indications may be that a stranger was in our midst.

“The DNA did not match any other cougar in the database so all that tells us is it’s not a cougar somebody else already detected as part of a study,” said DNR furbearer specialist John Erb. The cat was taken to the forest wildlife research station in Grand Rapids.

“We have some partial information from necropsying the animal but we have only partial DNA results back.

“There was one in Wisconsin recently and they collected a blood sample from that,” Erb said.

“It didn’t match but we don’t have the information yet on whether the DNA closely matches the South Dakota population or Colorado so at this point it’s incomplete.”

It is believed that sub-adult “dispersers” occasionally roam out of the Black Hills eastward looking for females, ousted from their prides by dominant males.

Whether the 114-pound Bemidji cougar was one of those cats is still being determined.

But Erb said while DNA testing cannot usually determine conclusively if a cougar is captive or wild, “my opinion continues to be that I don’t think so,” he said, of the Bemidji cougar being a domestic cat.

Complicating the DNR’s task is the sighting Dec. 6 of a 200-pound cougar in Champlin, captured on a police officer’s dashboard camera roaming through a residential neighborhood.

The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone has publicly offered to take that cat if it can be safely captured.

“It would be quite rare if this cougar ends up being wild, but it’s not impossible,” said Tammy Thies, director of The Wildcat Sanctuary.

“Given the cougar’s location and approximate size, it is more likely to be someone’s escaped pet,” she said. “We have heard about privately owned cougars in Inver Grove Heights, Minnetonka and also in Anoka and Isanti counties.”

TWS believes there may be 1,000 privately owned cougars in Minnesota. The Sanctuary houses more than 100 wildcats including 19 cougars.


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Margay found with rope around neck rehabilitated, released in Mexico

Margay rescued at Sierra Gorda, Mexico

A young Margay (Leopardus weidii) rescued by World Land Trust partners Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG) proved quite a challenge but there was a heart warming outcome.

The kitten was found in a house, in a very distressed state with a rope around her neck.

Roberto Pedraza (GESG technical adviser) said: “As she was so young we knew we were not able to release her back to the forest straight away, so we reared her for a few months. First we fed her with milk and kitten food, then after a while some dead mice and then some alive ones.”

Roberto proudly watched over Nina, as she had become known, until he felt that she had the learned the necessary skills to survive in the wild. He added that although she liked interacting with humans, she kept her wild side. “She never became tame at all; she liked me because I was the ‘food-guy’, but she was always ferocious in her own way.”

Happily, Nina was released in one of Sierra Gorda’s Cloud forest reserves in the Hoya del Hielo area. “Previously we photographed two jaguars, one puma, an ocelot and a margay here, so it is quite the right place for her” says Roberto.

The World Land Trust’s work in Mexico has included funding the purchase of 720 hectares of land as part of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in the state of Queretaro and work on reforestation and assisted regeneration for our carbon projects. Find out more about the projects on our Mexico page.


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