How Do We Prevent Pets from Becoming Exotic Invaders?

This summer a professional trapper caught an alligator in a lagoon in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, following a weeklong search that drew crowds of onlookers and captured national headlines. Dubbed “Chance the Snapper,” after a local hip-hop artist, the five-foot, three-inch reptile had likely been let loose by an unprepared pet owner, say experts at the Chicago Herpetological Society (CHS). This was no anomaly: pet gators have recently turned up in a backyard pool on Long Island, at a grocery store parking lot in suburban Pittsburgh (the fourth in that area since May) and again in Chicago.

Keeping a pet alligator is illegal in most U.S. states, but an underground market for these and other exotic animals is thriving—and contributing to the proliferation of invasive species in the U.S. and elsewhere. As online markets make it steadily easier to find unconventional pets such as alligators and monkeys, scientists and policy makers are grappling with how to stop the release of these animals in order to prevent new invasives from establishing themselves and threatening still more ecological havoc. New research suggests that simply banning such pets will not solve the problem and that a combination of education, amnesty programs and fines might be a better approach. Many people who release pets may simply be unaware of the dangers—both to the ecosystem and the animals themselves—says Andrew Rhyne, a marine biologist at Roger Williams University who studies the aquarium fish trade. People may think a released animal is “living a happy, productive life. But the external environment is not a happy place for these animals to live, especially if they’re not from the habitat they’re being released into,” he says. “The vast majority of [these] species suffer greatly and die out in the wild.”

Exotics to Invasives

Owners sometimes release alligators, as well as other exotic pets such as snakes and certain varieties of aquarium fish, when they prove too big, aggressive or otherwise difficult to handle. But unleashing them on a nonnative habitat risks letting them establish themselves as an invasive species that can disturb local ecosystems. According to one estimate, nearly 85 percent of the 140 nonnative reptiles and amphibians that disrupted food webs in Florida’s coastal waters between the mid-19th century and 2010 are thought to have been introduced by the exotic pet trade.

A study published in June in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment found this trade is already responsible for hundreds of nonnative and invasive species establishing themselves in locations around the world. Examples range from Burmese pythons—which can grow more than 15 feet long and dine on local wildlife in the Florida Everglades—to monk parakeets, whose bulky nests atop utility poles and power substations around the U.S. cause frequent fires and outages. And because of the growth of direct-to-consumer marketplaces on Web sites and social media, “the trade in exotic pets is a growing trend,” both in terms of the number of individual animals and the variety of species kept, says study leader Julie Lockwood, a Rutgers University ecologist. “Together, those increase the chances that this market will lead to an invasion” of an exotic species, she says.

To date, the main way officials have tried to combat the problem is with laws that simply prohibit keeping certain categories of animals as pets. But the effectiveness of this approach is unclear. Even though Illinois has outlawed keeping crocodilians as pets for more than a decade, Chance is just one of many CHS has had to deal with this year alone, says its president Rich Crowley. He likens the problem to illegal fireworks, noting that bans on exotic pets are inconsistent from one state to the next. For Illinois residents, “there’s still a supply that is readily available, legally, across the border” in Indiana, he says. “There are people out there who are willing to take the chance of skirting the law because the reward of keeping [these] animals is worth the risk.”

Edward Mercer, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission nonnative wildlife technician, holds a North African python during a press conference in the Florida Everglades on January 29, 2015, in Miami. Credit: Joe Raedle Getty Images

New research published recently in Biological Invasions underscores this point, finding that banning the sale and possession of invasive exotic species in Spain did not reduce their release into urban lakes in and around Barcelona. “For these invasive species, legislation for the management of invasions comes too late,” because they have already established themselves in the local environment, says University of Barcelona ecologist Alberto Maceda-Veiga, the report’s lead author.

Phil Goss, president of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, says that instead of blanket bans, he would like to see ways for responsible pet owners to still possess exotic species—with laws targeting the specific problem of releasing animals into the wild. “We’re certainly not against all regulation,” he says. “What we’d like to see is something that will punish actual irresponsible owners first rather than punishing all keepers as a whole.”

Training and Tagging

Instead of bans, Maceda-Veiga’s study recommends educating buyers of juvenile exotic animals about how large they will eventually grow and taking a permit-issuing approach that requires potential owners to seek training and accreditation. “You need a driving license to drive a car,” and people should be similarly licensed to keep exotic pets, Maceda-Veiga says. He and his co-authors contend that licensing, combined with microchips that could be implanted in pets to identify owners, could curb illegal releases.

Rhyne agrees that giving buyers more information would likely help. “I think the education part is really important,” he says. “We should not assume that the average consumer understands (a) how big the animal will get once it’s an adult and (b) what the harm could be if it got out in the wild.” Crowley concurs and says CHS has worked with municipal authorities to make sure pet owners who might have a crocodilian that is getting too big for the bathtub are referred to the organization for assistance. Also, some state agencies offer alternatives to dumping an animal in the wild that protect owners from legal repercussions. Lockwood says devising responsible ways for owners to relinquish such pets could help. But for this to work, “you need to make it as easy as possible” to turn in an animal, she says. In 2006 Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) established an amnesty program that allows owners to surrender their exotic pets with no questions asked. So far more than 6,500 animals have been turned over to the program, says Stephanie Krug, a nonnative-species education and outreach specialist at FWC. A few other states have followed Florida’s lead in establishing amnesty initiatives.

Rhyne says some of the onus for controlling exotic animals should fall on the pet industry itself. “If you don’t regulate yourself and make sure you’re doing your best not to trade in species that are highly invasive, you’re going to create a problem that [lawmakers] are going to fix for you,” he adds. Mike Bober, president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, says the pet care community is considering ways to proactively address the problem. “We look at that being primarily based in education and partnership,” he says.

As for what became of Chance, the erstwhile Windy City denizen is acclimating to his new home at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida. An aerial photograph of the Humboldt Park lagoon adorns his enclosure—but he is back where he belongs.

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