Pets gone wild in Florida, where reptiles relocate

chameleon from Oman
A veiled chameleon from Oman, now breeding in Florida.

A surfer-looking dude who wrassles gators for a living (and on TV) gave an awesome show-n-tell tonight in my FIU graduate seminar on current environmental topics, complete with two chameleons he had caught this week. Christopher Gillette caught these Old World, non-native reptiles  near Everglades National Park, where they are clearly breeding, so you can bypass the pet store and catch one yourself (if you can ever find these masters of camouflage). Actually, if you find such an exotic creature, dial 888-IVE-GOT1.

While visually appealing, these critters do not belong here, and they hunt the native birds, lizards, and other fauna who deserve a fair chance to survive. Such exotic pets all too frequently invade into Florida’s moderate climate and put other species on the path to extinction. Invasive species are considered the second major threat to land-based extinction, after deforestation. 

Of the 138 established exotic reptiles and amphibians in South Florida documented by Gillette and a team of researchers, 123 trace directly to the pet trade. About one-third are lizards, like the Cuban brown anole that is out-competing the native green anole. In addition to lazy pet owners who willfully dump their overgrown or unwanted pets, mass importers of reptiles often dump unwanted specimens, and Gillette has documented this process at Broward’s Strictly Reptiles. Gillette says he has been threatened and even shot at during his excursions to collect specimens and evidence of wrong-doing. For the full, sordid story, check out the book The Lizard King (yeah, there’s a drug connection).

“These people don’t like what we’re doing,” he says about the pet trade. When referring to the bullet holes in his car, he notes that “biology is fun.”

The two main problems with these often beautiful and fascinating creatures is that they spread diseases and they can be poisonous. The well-established cane toads of Florida have killed many a curious dog.

With the pet trade as the clear culprit of most infestations, solutions must target them and their customers. Some cities offer “amnesty days” to owners who no longer want their exotic pets. Pet stores should do the same and teach customers how to prevent escapes.

Some pet suppliers are known to release breeding populations into the wild, so that they can later collect the young and sell them, thereby avoiding the cost of importation. Once they are caught, they should never be allowed to import anything again. These are crimes against nature.

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