How Escaped Pets Took Over Florida

September 3, 2018

It was the end of November, 1929, and the holiday season was closing in. Maybe that’s why the pet store at 203 Tyler Street near Tampa, Florida, had recently ordered a shipment of monkeys, including a nursing mother and her baby. The shop was refreshing its winged offerings, too—a flock of canaries and parakeets had also just landed.

The store was sure to get loud and crowded—fast. But it was only a way station for these creatures, a stop between old homes and, presumably, new ones. To keep the inventory moving, the store placed an ad in the classified section of the Tampa Times.

The monkeys were offered in the “Dogs, Cats, and Pets” column, beneath collie puppies and a wire-haired fox terrier described as “highly pedigreed, gentle, and affectionate.” The newspaper didn’t specify what species the monkeys belonged to, but whatever it was, they weren’t native to Florida, or anywhere in the United States—no monkeys are.

Across the country, and all over the world, families choose to keep pets that are wildly different from the ones that amble around naturally outside. In a new paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Oliver Stringham, a graduate student in ecology and evolution at Rutgers University, points to the trade in “exotic” pets as the primary way that many creatures slink, slither, or swing into ecosystems where they weren’t before.

Animals sold as pets sometimes end up outdoors when owners are forced to face smelly, inconvenient reality, or the realization that one’s apartment doesn’t grow like a pet python does, or the fact that they simply don’t want to be pet owners any more. That’s likely how red-eared slider turtles got into New York’s water and how goldfish took up residence in Australian rivers, not to mention big, active wild animals like monkeys.

“Owners may underestimate the space and costs needed to keep such animals as they grow into adults,” Stringham said in a statement. Boa constrictors and reticulated pythons, for example, grow to over eight feet long. African clawed frogs and Russian tortoises can live 30 years or more, he added. “Not wanting to euthanize, owners may resort to releasing them instead.”

Stringham analyzed import, sales, and release data about 1,722 species of amphibians and reptiles brought to the United States between 1999 and 2016, and found that the “exotic” pets most likely to have been dumped over that period were those imported in the greatest number, sold for the cheapest prices, and having the greatest weight.

Florida has a particular mess on its hands. The state leads the country in number of introduced animal species. In a 2011 study synthesizing 147 years of data, Kenneth Krysko, herpetology collection manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History, attributed 84 percent of these introductions to the pet trade. “If the trends continue, it’s likely we will have more non-native species in Florida than native species,” Krysko told the museum’s press office at the time. “It’s really difficult to comprehend, but I believe it can happen.”

Here’s an overview of how some of Florida’s feral exotic pets have changed things—and what the state is trying to do to stop them.

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