Invasive Reptiles Are Taking Over Florida—and Devouring Its Birds Along the Way
September 5, 2018
GCC Faculty Insights:
“I think this article nicely underscores the tension between the right of people to own non-regulated animals and the reality that many cannot handle them. They believe they are doing the humane thing by releasing them into the wild, only to accidentally initiate an invasion. Fairly common story actually. Demonstrates the need for both better education of the public (and pet trade in particular) and tighter regulation of trade animals.”
– Jacob Barney, Associate Professor of Invasive Plant Ecology in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
From The National Audubon Society
BY CHRIS SWEENEY | SEPTEMBER 5, 2018
Birds like Roseate Spoonbills and Burrowing Owls are ending up in the stomachs of hungry pythons and nile monitors. Is it too late to stop them?
It’s a sweaty morning last June on the outskirts of Tampa, and droves of reptile enthusiasts are streaming into an air-conditioned expo center. Some have woken early to trek out to the Florida State Fairgrounds to get first crack at the animals of Repticon, a weekend-long extravaganza that’s similar to a baseball card convention, except instead of mint-condition Mickey Mantles and Pete Roses there are green anacondas and meat-eating lizards. One vendor’s table is covered in flimsy plastic catering trays that are filled with ball pythons. Others are selling Asian water monitors, gargoyle geckos, yellow rat snakes, and bearded dragons. A guy strolls by wearing a “Snakes Lives Matter” t-shirt. Another man, who has a three-foot-long lizard slung across his chest like a bandolier, is at a nearby booth admiring a young boa constrictor that’s twirling around his girlfriend’s fingers. Price? $100. Sold.
Roughly 60 Repticons take place each year, from Phoenix to Oklahoma City to Baltimore, attracting an estimated 200,000 visitors. These shows represent but a tiny sliver of the live-reptile trade, a loosely regulated industry that spans the globe and generates an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue annually, according to the United States Association of Reptile Keepers. In much of the continental United States, these cold-blooded creatures aren’t likely to fare well outdoors should they escape or be set free. But the sub-tropics of South Florida are different, and the best adapted have not only survived in the wild, they have thrived. To date the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, has identified 50 types of non-native lizards, turtles, crocodilians, and snakes within state limits, more than anywhere else in the world.
For the birds of Florida, this blitz of exotic predators poses an existential-scale threat. The Burmese pythons, which stalk wading birds in the Everglades, have become so menacing that the state has hosted derby-style competitions to catch them. Farther north, Nile monitors—the largest lizard in Africa—have been terrorizing a population of Burrowing Owls in the city of Cape Coral. And on the outskirts of Florida City, just outside Everglades National Park, egg-eating Argentine tegus could soon raid the nesting grounds of one of the last remaining populations of the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. Each of these reptiles found their way to Florida via the pet trade—but while most people acknowledge that’s a leaky pipeline, few agree on whether and how to plug it.
Take Ed Poelsma, who’s wandering Repticon with Pugsly, a five-and-a-half-foot-long black-throated monitor that’s a close relative of the Komodo dragon. Pugsly is a stunning creature that looks to be from prehistoric times, with claws like steak knives, camouflaged skin, and a muscular tail. What does Pugsly eat? “Meat,” Poelsma says. “He would eat anything you put in his cage that’s meat. Literally anything.” No, Pugsly has never bitten Poelsma, and yes, he considers the giant lizard to be part of his family. He takes Pugsly for walks in his neighborhood, maintains an Instagram page for the animal, and happily answers questions from curious onlookers. You don’t need a permit to buy a Pugsly of your own, and that’s how Poelsma thinks it should be. “If you want to look at invasive animals in the wild, the very worst thing in the world is a domestic cat,” he tells me. “Go to the local ASPCA or local pound and look at all the dogs and cats . . . But everybody wants to blame the reptile owners for being an irresponsible pet owner.”