Florida needs better control of exotic pets

About 100 exotic pets were turned in during a nonnative pet amnesty day held at Busch Gardens on Saturday. Workers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) accepted all nonnative pets – no questions asked.

Events like this one are supposed to keep owners from releasing exotic animals into the wild, but Saturday showed how widespread nonnative pet ownership is and the risk it poses to Florida’s ecosystem, which is already infested with invasive species.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, one woman handed over three Burmese pythons, including a 13-footer. Another man turned in two African sulcata tortoises, the larger of the two weighing nearly 150 pounds. The most unusual pet was an albino skunk.

Leigh Andrus, spokeswoman for Busch Entertainment Corporation, said to the Tampa Tribune that the majority of the pets were reptiles, including a lot of Burmese pythons.

“We were very pleased they were bringing them in,” Andrus said. “This was the first time we did this, and we didn’t know what to expect but were very happy with the turnout.”

Amnesty days try to match exotic pets with owners who are licensed and equipped to handle them. More amnesty days are needed throughout the state.

The event kept a few more pythons out of the wild, but the species already has firmly established itself in Florida’s Everglades. According to a U.S. Geological Survey report released last month, the Burmese python is one of five giant nonnative snake species that could be a major risk to the health of U.S. ecosystems.

Unfortunately for Florida, the Burmese python and the boa, another species on the list, are already established in the state, with populations estimated in the tens of thousands.

Florida is an ideal environment for many tropical species that cannot survive the cold winters of other states.

“Its diverse habitats and suitable climates, from the subtropical southern peninsula and Florida Keys north to the subtemperate panhandle, have facilitated exotics in becoming established and expanding their ranges,” said Kenneth Krysko, a herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, to National Geographic.

According to the FWC, more than 400 nonnative fish and wildlife species have been documented in the state. They include iguanas, three species of monkeys, dozens of exotic parrots, toucans and many kinds of freshwater fish. Many of these species were directly introduced by humans.

It is impossible for the state to completely capture or eradicate well-established invasive species. However, if people continue to purchase exotic pets they cannot handle, it will only exacerbate the situation.

Amnesty days help, but Florida residents must learn to make better decisions on pet purchases.