New UF brochure explains owners’ options for unwanted exotic pets

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Pet owners sometimes release unwanted exotic animals into the wild, considering it an act of kindness.

But Florida’s environment and economy pay a hefty price if these creatures thrive and reproduce. Introduced species may eat native animals and plants, damage property, pose human health risks and require costly management efforts. The lionfish, Burmese python and monk parakeet have all made headlines for wreaking havoc, and some of the specimens were probably released by pet owners.

To combat this problem, experts with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have published a free brochure that describes humane, responsible alternatives for people with pets they can’t manage or no longer want.

Titled “Options for Unwanted Exotic Pets,” it’s available online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw353

“A lot of folks may not be aware that they have options, or that help is available,” said author Steve Johnson, an associate professor in UF’s wildlife ecology and conservation department. “We’re hoping to change that, and we want to remind people that turning pets loose is never acceptable.”

In Florida, releasing non-native animals is prohibited by law, Johnson said. What’s more, it’s inhumane—pets from other parts of the world may die from starvation or exposure in Florida’s outdoors.

The species that become established are the exceptions, he said, though Florida currently hosts breeding populations of about 140 non-native vertebrate species.

The brochure outlines several options for pet owners. They include learning more about caring for the animal, finding a new home for it, returning it to the seller, and contacting government or volunteer agencies.

The brochure also lists several websites that provide geographically indexed directories to pet rescue groups, animal shelters, exotic pet veterinarians, animal sanctuaries that can provide referrals, advice or possibly a new home. It also has a link to listings for “pet amnesty days” where the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission accepts exotic animals and attempts to place them with new owners.

As a preventive measure, the brochure includes a section on the importance of selecting the right pet in the first place, said author Monica McGarrity, a biological scientist who works with Johnson at UF’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Plant City. Potential buyers need to understand an animal’s potential lifespan and size, as well as its housing and nutrition requirements, before making a purchase.

Anyone considering an exotic pet should research the animal and consider the decision for at least a day, she said.

“Some of the most problematic situations happen when people make impulse buys,” McGarrity said.

She cites iguanas as a prime example— cute, small and inexpensive as juveniles. But a few years later the reptile may be 3 to 4 feet long and combative when handled if it hasn’t been properly socialized.

“That’s when people start thinking about releasing it,” she said.

Dustin Smith, an assistant curator at Zoo Miami in Miami-Dade County and another author of the brochure, said he knows all too well what happens to those iguanas, not to mention other freed pets. South Florida has the state’s highest concentration of established, non-native animals, many of them familiar sights to residents.

“When the weather’s decent, there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see an exotic vertebrate,” he said. “Yesterday, I saw two species of parrots.”

For more information on non-native animals and their impact on Florida, visit http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu/InvaderUpdater.shtml.

For information about selecting reptiles as pets, visit http://www.uga.edu/separc/BuyersGuide/index.htm.

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Contacts

Writer: Tom Nordlie, 352-273-3567, tnordlie@ufl.edu

Sources: Monica McGarrity, 813-757-2271, monicaem@ufl.edu

Dustin Smith, 305-251-0400, ext. 84957, dustsmi@miamidade.gov

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A captive monk parakeet is shown in this file photo taken at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Florida Field Station in Gainesville. Native to South America, the birds are popular pets and have become established in Florida, where they sometimes build huge nests atop electrical utilities equipment, causing power outages and fires. Experts with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have published a brochure to help pet owners understand their options if they can no longer care for exotic animals, and discourage release of non-native species. Photo by Tyler Jones/University of Florida/IFAS