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Music For Your Enjoyment

I recently did a talk for the Audubon Society on exotic animals.   It was a great project for me and I learned a lot of things I never knew.  Please enjoy.

A growing worldwide trade, fueled by a fascination with the rare and beautiful, often wreaks havoc on Florida’s native plants and animals.  The exotic, dangerous, and illegal pet trade in the U.S. is worth billions of dollars. The intruders are exotic species — non-native plants and animals introduced into the country either intentionally or by accident. Invasive species are one of the leading threats to U.S. ecosystems and may cause devastating economic, environmental, and human impacts. The following 10 animal species are considered to be among America’s Least Wanted:

Africanized Honeybee

Asian Carp

Asian Longhorned Beetle

Brown Tree Snake

European Green Crab

European Starling

European Wild Boar


Red Imported Fire Ant

Zebra Mussel

America has a love affair with exotic species, but unfortunately it has a dark side. Go down to Miami International Airport. It’s amazing what comes in on a daily basis from overseas.

The list includes tropical flowers, colorful fish, scorpions and spitting cobras.

Though the imports can start harmlessly as pretty plants or cool pets, far too many wind up in the wild, becoming a growing exotic menace that some say is the single biggest threat to the nation’s protected species.

Many scientists consider Florida ground zero in the invasion with more exotic imports arriving daily and more protected species at risk than anywhere else except Hawaii. Hundreds of nonnative species flourish in the wild.

Some wildlife professionals say that in a decade or two, the ecology of the state of Florida is not going to be what we’ve known all our lives.  It’s going to be changed by all these exotic species.

People have long traded in goods such as seeds, plants and animals. But an explosion in global trade and Internet sales triggered a more rapid and prolific exchange. Overall, more than 50,000 species of plants, animals and microbes have been introduced to the United States.

A staggering number of (species) are being moved from disparate places to our lands, and sometimes waters, at a speed never before accomplished and it happens with little oversight.

That troubles conservation scientists who fear invasive species are threatening natural ecosystems. A plant or animal becomes “invasive” when it thrives and reproduces in new surroundings and harms native plants and animals, placing them at risk of extinction.

Most species brought to the United States are beneficial rather than invasive, including cattle and crops such as rice.  But when exotics escape or are released into the wild and face no natural predators, they can cause major problems.

Florida, however, with up to 100,000 pythons roaming in the Everglades, is considered by some the poster child for “really creepy invaders.”

Dozens of other nonnative reptiles and amphibians thrive in the state’s temperate and subtropical climates.

Exotic armored catfish are most likely the result of escapes or releases from aquarium fish farms. In Florida, this species occupies waters adjacent to Everglades National Park and is considered a threat to the park.  Males will dig out river banks to create burrows in which an attract female, where they lay and guard her eggs. In large numbers, burrows potentially destabilize the banks, leading to an increased rate of erosion.  These fish seem to be spreading throughout the rest of the state. Over the years, the United States has introduced a large amount of wildlife and plant species from the continent of Asia, such as beetle insects. The primary reasoning for introducing these species include pest control — which is the case for the Asian beetle. However, some Asian beetle and plant species have become an invasive species in the United States since they do not have any natural predators to keep their populations from growing. These beetles have now expanded and decimated red bay trees around Jacksonville and the Palm Coast.These kinds of issues nationwide, leave nearly half the country’s 958 protected species at risk from competition by these intrusive exotics.

The invasive exotics cost the country more than $137 billion a year in damage and containment efforts. That’s one dollar for every $8 worth of food grown and nearly double what the nation spends annually on cancer treatment. Florida property owners and agencies spend more than $600 million a year.

Between diseases such as citrus canker, which killed off tons of citrus trees, weeds and the bugs that are killing forest plants and crops, the overall economic impact is very severe.

Conservation scientists say legislation and rule changes are urgently needed to limit the flow of invasive, exotic species, build a coordinated nationwide effort to determine the extent of the problem and repair the damage. The hope is to enlist others in this battle to contain and control exotics, including legislators who could funnel more money to combat the problem. The hope is also to convince backyard gardeners to plant natives and to stop owners of exotic pets from releasing them into the wild.

Efforts to restrict trade and exotic pet ownership meet heavy resistance.

Progress toward a zealous national effort to control exotics has been slow, but the call for action took on new urgency after July 1, 2009. That’s when a Sumter County family’s pet Burmese python strangled a toddler. Officials say the python was improperly caged and the family didn’t have a permit.

The resulting nationwide headlines made threats posed by exotic animals a very major issue.

Florida is cracking down on the sale of Burmese pythons. The so-called ‘reptile bill’ (SB 318) disallows importing, selling, or swapping the giant snakes and seven other constrictor species as personal pets.

Proponents of exotic pet and plant ownership and some scientists fear the new legislation and rule changes might unfairly hinder trade, limit personal freedom, and create an underground black market that could make matters worse.

Scientists are working to develop ways to analyze which species could be most invasive and what economic and environmental problems they could cause. Knowing the flow of exotic invaders may be impossible to stop, they continue looking for ways to minimize impacts.

State and federal agencies and private landowners have achieved some successes with plants, pests and animals.

The Gambian rat is an African native that can grow to the size of a raccoon. A few rats were released in 2003, by a pet breeder in the Florida Keys. The rat is yet another threat to Florida’s fragile ecosystem and human life. Gambian rats eat almost anything, including the eggs of endangered birds, snails, crabs, seeds and endangered plant life.

Many people were surprised to learn that earlier this year, an Orlando man had brought a nonindigenous species of cockroach into his community to feed his reptile. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but it’s nothing new.  There are so many people doing the same thing.

Killer bees, fire ants, termites, root weevils, insects that spread citrus greening, yellow fever mosquitoes, gypsy moths, screwworms, exotic catfish, eels, monitor lizards and venomous spiders are just a few introduced pests that no one in America ever expected to see in their backyards.

Yet pests still get in, and some get released into the environment. Recently, there was an orange-spotted roach imported allegedly without proper shipment papers. Importing any living, and certain dead animals into Florida requires state and/or federal government approval.

Imported insects or animals can spread and compete with, reduce or eliminate other species of wildlife. They can also facilitate the spread of human disease and severely impact our agricultural commodities and our environment.

Excessive cargo for the number of available inspectors, incorrect identification of pests and smuggling are all ways in which exotic pests enter the country.Imagine Florida without fire ants. Those who lived here before World War II can remember picnics and beaches, parking lots and baseball fields devoid of fire ants. Then somebody allowed an ant-infested shipment from South America to be delivered to Alabama. Fire-ant venom can cause life-threatening anaphylactic shock in some people.

Everyone needs to be careful when importing food, animals or dead plant materials from outside of America. Military personnel returning from other countries should inspect their packed items for any pests. Fresh foods and plant, insect or animal materials require a permit issued by state and/or federal authorities.

Many countries impose hefty fines for illegal importation of plant and animal materials. In the U.S., punishment can include forfeit of all illegal items to authorities and possibly fines and probation.

The Lacey Act, enacted in 1900 and amended several times since to combat trafficking in illegal plants and wildlife, is especially strict when it comes to importing plants. Many plants and insects are sold over the Internet without proper permits and documents. Fines can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, plus jail time.

Collectors of plant, insect and animal materials must insist on proper permits, must be sure that these documents have not been falsified and must retain the documents.

Even one exotic pest-infested item carelessly discarded can wreak havoc.

Piranha are fish that are only a foot long.  They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves.  But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger then themselves.  Piranha should be considered potentially dangerous even though there is no record of attacks resulting in death by these fish on live humans.  Reported injuries are from fishermen carelessly removing fish from the hook, or recovery of drowned victims who were later eaten by these fish.  These fish are scavengers by nature.  It is unlawful to keep piranha as pets in Florida, but people do it! It’s punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and a year in prison.  About 1 year ago a piranha were found in a retention pond in Florida.  The authorities feel these piranha were pets.

Due to Florida’s prominence in the exotic pet trade, iguanas imported as pets have escaped, or been released, and are now established in Florida. This has created unique problems for Florida’s homeowners and businesses.

The Green Iguana may be brown, gray, black or dark green. The males turn orange when they are mating. Babies and juveniles are bright green, and adults have black bands on their sides and tails.  The Common Green Iguana lives in trees, usually near water. You can spot them on the branches that hang above a pond, lake, canal or river. They will sun themselves on grassy slopes, tree trunks and limbs. They are excellent climbers and swimmers. They build burrows which can weaken waterside structures like embankments, cement seawalls and docks.  Green Iguanas are herbivores and live on vegetation. They like to eat brightly colored flowers like hibiscus, orchids, and bougainvillea. Their poop is generous and they leave it on our pool decks, docks, sidewalks, and rooftops. Because they eat our plantings and poop in our yards, Florida neighborhoods are waging war with the Green Iguana.

If you leave iguanas alone, they will not approach you or threaten you or your pets. However, if you corner them, they may bite, scratch, or whip you with their tail in self-defense. Both males and females are territorial and will defend the trees they live in and the area around them–including your entire backyard. If you dispose of an iguana in your backyard, another will come to take its place. If you prefer not to share your yard with iguanas, it is best to iguana-proof your home rather than trying to kill off the animals one at a time.

The Cuban Knight Anole is often confused with the juvenile Common Green Iguana because they are the same shade of green. However, on close inspection, these lizards are quite dissimilar. The Knight Anole has a triangular head, and the tail is extra long. There are yellow slash markings on the body and the dewlap is pale pink.

Most of the Knight Anoles living and breeding in the wild are in the Miami area, but they have been reported around the state and as far south as Key West. They were imported by the pet trade, but these lizards do not make good pets.

Knight Anoles are carnivores. They eat mostly large insects and fruit, but will prey on frogs, small anoles and geckos, small birds, bird eggs and hatchlings. When cornered, these lizards stand their ground, inflicting a heartfelt bite in order to protect themselves. They have sharp teeth.

It is not easy to spot a Knight Anole because they live high up in the tops of trees, hidden in leafy canopy. You may see them sunning on tree trunks, clinging to the bark while facing the ground, or sneaking across phone lines from tree top to tree top. If you see one, do not approach or attempt to capture this lizard. Outside of the Miami area, you can report your sighting to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on their Nuisance Species Hotline.

The nine-banded armadillos are common here in Florida. They are not native to the state but were introduced here in the early 1900′s. The Spanish name armadillo, which means “little armored one”, originated from the Spanish conquistadores.  They now live throughout the state and can be found wherever there is dense ground cover.

The nine-banded armadillo has been observed to travel, and get across a body of water, by two methods. The first method is the ability to float across by gulping air into their stomachs and intestines (Watson, 1989), and secondly if the body of water is shallow enough, the nine-banded armadillo is able to walk across the bottom by holding its breath for up to five minutes.

Armadillos are, to some degree, beneficial because they eat adult insects and larvae. But their feeding behavior also can cause problems for property owners and managers. When looking for insects in the soil, armadillos dig numerous holes in golf courses, lawns, flowerbeds, and gardens. These holes typically are 1-3 inches deep and 3-5 inches wide. They also uproot flowers and other ornamental plants. Armadillo burrows under driveways and patios can cause structural damage; and burrows in pastures can pose a potential hazard to livestock.

On the positive side, the nine-banded armadillo has become an important animal in the research of Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, which effects 4,000 individuals in the United States. At first it was thought that nine-banded armadillos weren’t able to procure leprosy due to their location. Eventually, people in Texas and in Louisiana were infected with the disease, which was later discovered that it was due to the extensive handling of nine-banded armadillos – racing armadillos, extracting meat, and making souvenirs from their shells (Wilson, 1997).

One last animal we are seeing in Florida is the Wild Boar.  Feral hogs have nearly the highest reproductive rate of any large animal on Earth.  First brought to North America by Spanish explorers to be used as domestic pigs, European wild boars have since formed feral populations that wreak havoc on the ecosystems they inhabit. These secretive, highly adaptive opportunists seek out and destroy native plant communities without regard for rare or endangered status.  They have destroyed breeding sites and degraded key habitats of several endangered amphibians, and pose a serious threat to coastal nesting areas for marine turtles. Their ravenous consumption of food upon which other forest species depend has had a direct negative impact on native animals.

Florida is bound to suffer economic loss because of alien predators. There is no sure way to protect Florida visitors and tourists from the  bees or pythons. Florida is known for its many outdoor attractions, popular recreation events, coastal beaches and miles of nature trails. As for protection from other animals, like the feral hogs, they are a menace across Florida. It’s not unusual to spot wild hogs near wooded areas while traveling the highway. Wilderness hikers have to travel with care and stay alert.

Florida is a retirement haven for seniors. Families with young children flock to central Florida all year ’round for the many outdoor attractions. South Florida is a tropical paradise. Northwest Florida offers some of the finest fishing in the world; visitors and private groups come in droves to rent charter boats and enjoy the white sandy beaches that make up the emerald coast. But is it safe to vacation in Florida? Is it safe to move to the sunshine state with so many invasive animal and plant species endangering native inhabitants and humans?

No one knows for sure how much damage the predator invasion will cause. Is the federal government doing all it can to stop the predator population explosion in Florida?  Wildlife experts and many residents say no.  The saga continues.

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16 Responses to “Exotic Animals…..Their Impact on The Environment”

  • Pamela says:

    I too do not believe in having certain animals for pets, such as birds, ferrets, snakes, iguanas, large cats, tropical fish, etc. So I do not offer products that are needed to make habitats for these in or around your home. We have certainly invaded the spaces of all animals, even cut off their migratory routes. It comes as no surprise that they are now invading what we considering “our space.” And they are shot. Why? For trying to survive. Humans should be embarrassed at the way we’ve taken over the world as if are the only species deserving of respect as we take what we want without thought to the consequences for other species. I am so appalled I can barely contain myself. Do not buy parrots, macaws, snakes, etc and there will be no market for them. Rhinos and elephants’ tusks are sawed off and the animal left to die. The “firedfighter of the savanna” the rhino and the highly intelligent, social elephant left to die for a few pennies. Disgraceful. I’ve had bears come into my restaurant trash bins, but I called wildlife and made sure they place them in the Ocala National Forest. And the humans who had eaten at my restaurant would stupidly walk out with leftovers and try to get the bears to come to them to feed them for their own amusement. The only animals I see as ignorant, predatory, without instinct are humans. So the word humane needs to be changed to meaning “self-destructive and arrogant!” I do not go to zoos and I do not go to circuses. I will not assist these exploiters make money interrupting the natural lives of these animals and that includes Siegfeld and Roy of Las Vegas. Once animals are displaced I applaud those like Tippie Hedron who take in these animals that can no longer go back into the wild which by the way is diminishing by 100’s of acres daily if not hourly. We are the worst Stewards of the Planet we could possibly be.

  • Terry says:

    I strongly agree that keeping tigers, bears, etc, as ‘pets’ is an asinine & cruel practice; Ohio introduced legislation to shut-off the sale, possession or trade of large exotics, and there was loud screaming protest from several venues that host animal auctions there, as well as breeders, importers & owners.
    i hope the law passed; if it were possible, i would ban private ownership Federally, not state by state; Texas is an especially appalling example of backyard-zoos.

    I also support well-run, accredited zoos – but i HATE it when an accredited zoo keeps, say, white tigers because they will sell tickets, especially if they let them breed…
    “Look at the cute cub, mommy!”……. Grr.
    **white tigers** in captivity are incredibly inbred, and every cage-space & habitat that holds one in a good zoo is one less space for a tiger who would qualify under the Species-Survival Plan.
    i grit my teeth & my blood-pressure rises when i hear someone who should know better claim that “white tigers are an endangered species…” No, they are not – they are a color morph, like a Siamese cat, and do not thrive in the wild for the obvious reason that they lack camouflage.

    But without HABITAT – there is no wildlife. Species have a place, and they fill a specific need within the web; the more strands of the life-web we humans cut, the more likely it becomes that we will have a catastrophic failure.
    Invasive & alien species are another disaster world-wide; i am sorry to hear that raccoons are in Europe, just as i bitterly regret the idiot who released English sparrows & European starlings here in the USA; such aliens wreak havoc among native species, and can be broadly destructive of habitat, like the feral pigs in Hawaii & all over more than 20 states of the mainland-USA.
    DOMESTIC CATS are in my opinion, among the worst scourges of wildlife worldwide; they are an introduced alien in large numbers on 6 continents where they are not native, and are responsible for the decline & in some cases, the demise of many species.
    If U do nothing else for wildlife, ** keeping cats as indoors-only pets ** & desexing them is a huge, huge gift to wildlife.

    Magnetic megafauna are wonderful & iconic creatures – but the krill of Antartica are the foundation of the short & simple food-web there, and as the krill goes, so go the Adelie, Emperor, blue whale, leopard seal, humpback, and all the other creatures of the south-polar region.
    It is not the bison, bald-eagle or cougar that will save wildlife; it is the habitat we protect as a whole, and the myriad tiny things are the foundations of the whole.
    Love your Mother – Earth needs you.

  • Sean says:

    I read your article about invasive species and was very impressed, it was an excellent overview of different invasive species. I did feel one important invasive species was left out- the Pacific Lionfish, it was introduced to the waters of FL in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a saltwater aquarium and approximately six fish escaped into the ocean. They are currently exploding in population as they are more aggressive feeders than most native fish and they have very few, if any predators. I found an article to share with you that gives a good overview of the problem and possible solutions to it.

  • Madeleine says:

    As long as man thrills from the kill and values money over the destruction of the planet, the survival of exotic animals in their native habitats are doomed. As we are.

  • Pinky says:

    Why do you think our shelter exists! We take in all of the Exotic animals that have been purchased illegally and have been seized. We first started out Being an animal shelter then had to expand our Licensing to incorporate exotic animals. We rescue pretty much everything except Predators. It makes me sick to see how easily these animals are purchased on line. Thank you

  • T.J. says:

    Have been reading an excerpt from Wayne Pacelle’s THE BOND: OUR KINSHIP WITH ANIMALS, OUR CALL TO DEFEND THEM, and I believe that he addresses a number of the points you’re concerned with here, Eva. It’s worth checking out.

  • Kerri says:

    While visiting the Big Cat Sanctuary in Tampa I learned that many kittens bought from breeders are actually domestic cats bred with wild cats–cervals, ocelots, lynx,etc. creating ‘hybrid cat’ breeds. What is astonishing is the morally reprehensible process in which this is done; The initial wild mate and most of the first batch of kittens are killed with the remaining, more tame kittens kept as stud animals (to get to an even more tame, more marketable domestic version of kitten). Often, the sold offspring return to their wild nature, sometimes becoming dangerous to the families that buy them. These either end up being destroyed, released into the wild, or (sadly but thankfully) end up caged in sanctuaries like the one I visited. I had no idea that the Bengal, Ossie, and Savannah breeds represent some of the worst the cat breeding industry has to offer…

  • Sarah says:

    In Delaware the majority of invasive you see are either invertebrates or flora, outside of starlings. I went on a hike at the nature center I work two days ago and I swear half of the early spring plants I saw were some sort of Asian ornamental. I’m currently working at Petsmart as well, and I’ve lost count of how many times a parent has “joked” to me that if the pet their kid brought home doesn’t work out, they’ll just let it go. Or they already have. Or they found some local species that they just HAD to rescue and now it lives under their couch. I am extremely glad Delaware doesn’t allow non-native pet snakes without a permit, and my friend is opening a pet store which as far as I know is going to be aimed at local species, with the only exception being exotics that are extremely common pets, but nothing of the new “breeds”.

    On that note, it amazes me how people close to me despite my constant discussions do not understand the danger in the exotic pet trade. Just the other day my aunt told me I should adopt a Savannah Cat.

  • Mary says:

    This article is scary but true. In the last couple of months I’ve learned of two people who have 6 ft alligators living in their basements. Keep in mind — I live in the Milwaukee area. I understand the fascination but are we really doing these wild animals justice by domesticating them? Sure, they get an ample food supply but what happens to them when their owners can no longer care for them?

  • Eva says:

    Terry, first of all, thank you for correcting me. Of course you are right in saying that not all exotics come from the illegal trade but I raise the question how many people actually check thoroughly where the animal came from when they buy one… Further, breeding them in captivity, for what purpose and the definition of animal lovers around the planet is another topic for a discussion.
    Procyon lotor is the species we have in Germany, so yes, originally from North America and in Europe since the middle of the 20th century.
    Paula, in regards to zoos, I think they do have a purpose. Some species wouldn´t exist anymore if it wasn´t for zoos but unfortunately there are more bad than good examples out there. I thought about the educational side often. Now that we have media, have all these wonderful documentaries about animals in the wild and travelling from one place to another has become so easy, do we really still need zoos?
    The future of the exotic animals in the wild is the topic here though and that´s the most important… preserving wild places so that we and future generations can see the animals in the wild.

  • Paula says:

    I do not condon keeping tigers, lions, wolves, other “known” wild animals as pets. I am not aware of any legal breeders of these animals for “pet stock”. Even if there was, just by purchasing these animals for “pets” encourages anthropromorphism of these animals and unrealistic expectations that their needs as individual species. We are not really able to meet their species specific behaviorial needs as pets. they belong in the wild. We also need to preserve wild places so that these animals can continue to live out their lives the way nature intended them to live. If I am wrong please enlighten me.

  • Pippa says:

    Many beautiful animals are being killed today because of mans fascination with ‘beautiful things’. They do not believe that these animals should just be left alone. Maybe help with breeding, if numbers are low, but otherwise left on their own to live as they should – wild and free – no one to maime or kill them – I WISH.

  • Terry says:

    “I am currently in Germany… [t]here is also a huge problem with raccoons.”

    this is really puzzling – raccoons are native to the USA/North America, not Europe.
    what species is this in Germany?

    China has a species called the ‘raccoon-cat’ but it is neither a CAT nor a COON –
    it is a species of civet.

  • Terry says:

    Eve, not all exotics are from ILLEGAL sources – in the USA, over 90% of exotics are perfectly legal to own, and come from legal sources – bred domestically, or via licensed importers, **but the foreign sources may lie about their animals’ origins. **
    the longer the supply-chain, the harder it becomes to verify paperwork.

    Guinea pigs, gerbils, & hamsters are not native, but are generally domestically bred; domestic AKA laboratory rats & mice [which are now wildly diverse & no longer merely ‘white’], and native species like prairie-dogs are all lumped into ‘exotic’ pets – anything not dog or cat is an exotic pet.

    a likely ILLEGALLY-obtained pet is an African Grey Parrot AKA Congo Grey, usually taken illegally and by nets in the Republic of Congo, then cross-shipped to South Africa where the paperwork is laundered & the birds are labeled as domestically bred, then shipped overseas. Many more die than survive at each stage, but the profit is worthwhile to continue capturing them – and wild flocks are being decimated.

    the huge majority of exotic-pet owners in the USA are not supporting any sort of illegal trade at all. their pets are legally bought, & legally bred or imported.

  • Eva says:

    Natural habitats for animals are shrinking drastically. I was very fortunate to have lived in one of the last remaining paradises on this planet, the Okavango Delta where wild animals can move around freely without any threat attached to it. I have also been to Alaska and other impressive places with large natural habitats for animlas. Once you have seen the animals in their natural habitat, you can never enter a zoo again. (At least I can´t).
    I am currently in Germany and Germany is a good example of how strong confilct can become between humans and wild animals. The country is just too polulated. I remember clearly when – a couple of years ago – the first bear walked back into Germany after 100 years or something. Everyone was super excited about the news….. for something like 24 hours! Then the threat was larger than the excitement and the bear was shot soon after.
    There is also a huge problem with raccoons and with about 80.000 wild boar living in the capital of Germany, Berlin. Sad enough to call it a problem but most of the time it is a challenge for people and wild animals to live together in harmony.

    Another problem is the increase of exotic animals kept as pets. By buying an exotic animal we support the illegal exotic animal trade. Most animal lovers don´t even think about the fact that it is certainly NOT love when we support this trade.

    …and then there is Chinese medicine and other traditions that cause a huge threat for the future of exotic animals. Rhino horn, lion and tiger bones, elephant tasks… The list is long!

    There are lots of issues to mention, Donna and when all of the above mentioned issues are not taken more seriously, then I am afraid the future of the exotic animals on this planet is not too bright.

  • Karen says:

    This is great information and I learned things I never knew. Thanks for sharing.

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