The Florida Department of Agriculture released a public service announcement urging exotic pet owners to be responsible when it comes to their unique pets.
BY ANI MARTINEZ
Florida's latest resident is freckled, has eight black legs and red hair.
It also has an unlikely name -- the Mexican red rump tarantula, one of many exotic species purchased as pets then set free by their owners.
"Florida and California are the two worst states with imported exotics," said G.B. Edwards, the entomologist with Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "The main centers are Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Fort Myers."
The department hopes to drive home the problem by using Frida, a nonnative Mexican red rump tarantula, as the star of a new public service announcement now online.
The PSA video targets exotic pet owners who release their animals into the wild after the excitement wears off.
The newcomers can endanger native species by eating their food or attacking them. Or, in some cases, they can be a threat to people or domestic animals and plants.
"They could depopulate our native species in some ways," said Edwards, who is known as the State Spider Man. "The Nile Monitor [lizard] is aggressive. They could attack children."
Instead of dumping the pet in the Everglades or outside your neighborhood, experts say there are other options.
* First, try to return the animal to the place where you bought it -- even if the store doesn't refund your money.
* Find a vet who is familiar with the species. The vet may counsel you to keep the animal or refer you someone who wants the animal.
* Ask your local zoo or college if they can use it for teaching purposes.
"Whatever they do, they shouldn't let it loose," Edwards said.
CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
Experts warn that the best way to avoid releasing an exotic pet is to do the homework before buying one.
"For 11 years that I've been a vet, two people have come in for a $50 pre-purchase pet consult and a few people have called me," said Susan Kelleher owner of the Broward Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital in Pompano Beach. "The biggest reason exotic pets are returned is because they are impulse purchases."
Kelleher said rabbits and ferrets are the most common exotic animals people want to leave at her clinic.
"But I can't even take any more drop-offs," she said. "I can't act as a humane society."
The Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale also feels the burden.
"We are not the dumping grounds for these animals," said Judy LaRose, the center's senior director of animal services. "Unusual exotic animals are not as easily placed in other loving homes. Not everyone wants a tarantula or six-foot snake as a pet."
"It would be nice if the pet shops would stop selling these exotic animals," LaRose said.
But just like the exotic species, the pet stores are here to stay. Exotic pets can be profitable because many people want to buy them.
"Pet stores won't stop selling them," Edwards said. "Having a bearded dragon or some exotic is the in thing and they're selling like hot cakes."
Edwards said breeders have gone one step further and are crossbreeding tarantulas and making hybrids.
"That is really going too far," he said.
Although the state and federal government have rules against bringing in certain species, experts said the availability on the Internet is easy and the problem is too far out of control to enforce the laws.
"As far as the pet trade, we spend very little now because we don't have the time, researchers or manpower," Edwards said.
To see the PSA, visit www.doacs.state.fl.us/pi/videos.html.