Throughout Florida, pet snakes, iguanas and other reptiles have found their way into public parks and wooded areas. Sometimes they escape. More often, owners set these animals free without considering the consequences. This has led to rising concern in South Florida that invasive species such as the Burmese python could endanger other animals.
In North Florida though, cold weather tends to stifle survival and reproduction, effectively heading off any ecological threats. "Generally, these species we're talking about are tropical species, so it's too cold in North Florida for them," said Kent Vliet, a University of Florida biologist. Even species who burrow, such as the African spur-thighed tortoise, can't survive in numbers, Vliet said. Green iguanas and ball pythons are the top two reptiles Jacksonville pet owners have been releasing, said Kathy Paul, owner of A Pet Lounge and Grooming in Atlantic Beach.
As the reptile industry has grown in the last decade, both have become popular pets because they're inexpensive and easy to buy, Paul said. But once at home, an aggressive iguana or a finicky python refusing food for weeks on end can find themselves out in the cold. "There are a lot of ignorant people out there who do the same thing with dogs," Paul said. "We have a reptile rescue center, so they could find them homes. Instead, they just turn them loose." Even though the reptiles being released in North Florida generally don't survive long enough to harm the area's ecosystem, Vliet said an influx of monitor lizards could pose concerns.
Their large size and damaging bite could harm humans. They could also affect other animals because of their taste for bird and alligator eggs, Vliet said. That's why he and Paul see the responsibility falling on pet owners to become educated about the reptiles they buy and avoid abandoning them. "We consider it a serious ecological pressure, people treating pets as wildlife," Vliet said. Aside from exposing the animal to suffering from extreme temperatures and a lack of food, the environment should be considered. "There could be the potential they might become established and pose threats."