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The Exotic Menace: When pets become problems

December 14, 2009

The Exotic Menace

When pets become problems
By DINAH VOYLES PULVER
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.

REGULATING THE ONSLAUGHT

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.

GOLDEN MOMENT

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?

dinah.pulver@news-jrnl.com

http://www.news-journalonline.com/NewsJournalOnline/News/Headlines/frtHEAD01ENV121409.htm

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org

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