FWC amnesty day diverts exotic pets from area woodlands


Dobby, a red-eared slider and yellow-bellied slider hybrid, is examined by veterinary staff during the Exotic Pet Amnesty Day at the University of Florida Straughn IFAS Extension on Tuesday.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 6:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 6:07 p.m.

Forget dogs and cats. If you've ever dreamed of having an exotic pet -- say a boa constrictor or a yellow-bellied turtle -- you're in the right state.

Florida has an abundance of exotic animals brought in through the pet trade, an international market of importing and exporting exotic species. But for the same reason, many of these animals are on the loose here -- when eager owners realize they can't keep up with the demands of their exotic pets.

To amend that problem -- and find permanent homes for these creatures -- the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission periodically holds amnesty events to recover the animals. Tuesday, the commission came to the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, marking the first amnesty event in Alachua County.

Altogether, seven animals -- among them snakes, turtles, a bearded dragon and a prairie dog -- got adopted, mostly by aquariums and animal sanctuaries in Northern Florida.

“Frank,” a bearded dragon with a yellow-beaded back, was one of the animals snatched up. Weighing about as much as a can of soda, he chilled out on the arm of Jessica Therriault, who works in FWC communications.

“We're starting to bond,” Therriault said. “I've been holding him a lot. He's very sweet and docile.”

Frank's neighbor, Petri, a 16-pound boa constrictor, was coiled in his cage. A family had handed him off to a vet once the members realized how big he was going to get -- 8-10 feet, Therriault said.

His diet might also have been problematic: frozen thawed jumbo rats once every two weeks.

That information -- along with Petri's weight, health status and temperament, and adoptable status according to a veterinarian -- were listed on a sheet on top of his cage for his new owners.

Frank had a similar sheet on his cage, which boasted of a more manageable diet including butternut squash, collards and peas, and insects such as superworms and lobster roaches.

This is the basic information that goes to potential adopters, all of whom have to be approved by the FWC in order to adopt. Depending on the species people want to own, they might have to have a permit too, Therriault explained.

While most of the animals come in fairly healthy, some have been traumatized by careless owners or abandonment, she added.

“We have to make sure the new adopters realize that they need some extra TLC.”

A pair of turtles came in just under the 2 p.m. deadline for submissions on Tuesday -- one who had been found in the pool of an abandoned Gainesville home. The other had a soft lesion that needed antibiotics and injectible medication, explained UF vets examining them -- who made sure the adopters, wearing “Gulfarium” polo shirts, were prepared to treat the turtles.

For Lauren Diaz, a UF freshman studying wildlife ecology, amnesty day was a blessing. She brought in “Dobby,” a red-eared-slider and yellow-bellied slider hybrid turtle that she was given as a gift a couple of years ago.

“It's kind of a hassle to take care of. I need to change the water a lot,” Diaz said. She added that she was a bit sad to see Dobby go, but that “I'm happier giving him up so it can find someone who is more willing to take care of it.”

Diaz's gesture is emblematic of what the FWC aims for, and her pet, the size of a coffee lid, is fairly innocuous. But what often happens is that people abandon pets that might disrupt the ecosystem or harm other pets, said Steve Johnson, an associate professor in the wildlife ecology and conservation department at UF and the U.S. organizer of the adoption.

“They eat the native wildlife,” Johnson said, citing the Cuban tree frog as one species that eats native tree frogs. Iguanas also eat landscape plants. These invasive animals cause about $120 billion in damages annually in the U.S., Johnson said.

“Unfortunately, Florida is a mecca for the introduction of these animals,” he added.

The message that Johnson and FWC hope to send to people is that these animals can make for good pets -- but know what you are getting into.

“It's all about doing your research,” Johnson said.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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