When I was around 12 years old, I got a Chinese water dragon for my birthday. She was a beautiful, emerald-green lizard with a long, striped tail that she wielded like a bullwhip when she’d had enough of my prodding. I named her Misty.
After about a year, Misty and I had had enough of each other. The tail-whip went from an occasional curiosity to a standard greeting. I eventually stopped trying to hold her altogether, which meant she spent more and more time alone in her aquarium. With nothing else to do, and because water dragons apparently don’t understand glass, Misty spent all day rubbing her snout against the walls of her enclosure. My mom remembers it as being painful to watch.
Eventually, mom and I agreed to an exit strategy. We would release Misty into the pond behind my aunt’s house. What better place for a water dragon, right? Misty could gorge herself on grasshoppers, minnows, and bullfrog tadpoles and swim to her heart’s content. At least until fall and winter came on. Misty’s species is native to the warmer parts of Southeast Asia. We lived in the mountains outside of Pittsburgh.
“I figured five minutes of freedom was better than a lifetime of rubbing its nose against the glass,” says my mom, Kathie.
And so we set Misty loose. She hit the water with a splash, and we watched in awe as her legs folded in and her weapon of a tail turned into a crocodilian rudder.
Misty’s story is not a unique one.
Between 1999 and 2016, some 1,722 species of reptiles and amphibians were sold within the United States as pets, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Of these, records show that at least 126 species were released at one point or another into the wild.
Like Misty, most of those “freed” animals died in an environment that their species’ evolution did not equip them for. And that’s the best-case scenario, because every once in a while an ex-pet is able to find another ex-pet and establish a reproducing population. Burmese pythons have colonized Florida’s Everglades, red-eared sliders (a popular pet turtle) have conquered ecosystems from California, Washington, and Oregon to Australia, and lionfish are now eating through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
Almost all of the research on exotic pets has focused on figuring out which ones will become invasive species, says the study’s lead author, Oliver Stringham, a conservation biologist at Rutgers University. But virtually no one had looked into why people release their pets in the first place—until Stringham and biologist Julie Lockwood took on the mantle.
The scientists compared three data sets—which species are available in the exotic pet trade, which ones have been released, and the biological and economic profiles for the animals, such as how big they get, how long they live, and how much each species costs when sold. Some interesting patterns emerged. Namely, they found that the reptiles and amphibians most likely to be “set free” have three things in common:
- They are commonly available.
- They are relatively inexpensive.
- They get big.
This makes sense. Rarer animals tend to go for more money, and most people will be less inclined to release a really expensive animal—either because they have a substantial investment in it or because they could sell it to recoup their costs. As far as size goes, getting rid of a “tank-buster” pet is a trope as old as rumors of alligators living in New York City sewers.
But these data are important, because if we can figure out why and how exotic pets are being let go, conservationists can, one hopes, develop strategies to prevent future releases. After all, the best way to stop an invasive species is to never let it take hold in the first place.
Personally, I can tell you my parents didn’t know much about that water dragon before they bought it. We certainly didn’t know that they required tanks roughly six feet tall—Misty lived in a three-by-two-foot fish tank—or that they could live upwards of 16 years. Nor did we have the kind of resources pet owners have today, like a whole internet of lizard husbandry that could have offered solutions to that nose-rubbing problem.
This isn’t an excuse. It’s a confession that we had no business buying that dragon. My mom says she still feels guilty she didn’t do more research beforehand. The pets I had growing up were an important part of my budding interest in nature and science, but there are plenty of species that can provide that experience without also risking devastation to local species and their ecosystems.
Stringham hopes that if buyers have better warnings about what they’re getting into with a species, it may reduce the likelihood that they’ll ultimately release their animals into the wild. Another helpful, and easy, tweak to the process would be to make sure consumers leave the transaction with a list of safe places to surrender their pets, such as shelters, amnesty days, or buyback programs.
In Florida, where it is illegal to release exotic pets into the wild, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has created something called the Exotic Pet Amnesty Program. Founded in 2006, the EPAP offers events around the state, several times a year, where people can show up and hand-in exotic pets with no questions asked. Then the program places those pets with new, vetted owners that same day.
As of this month, the program has re-housed more than 5,700 animals, says Jamie Clift Rager, public relations specialist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. What’s more, Rager says other states, such as Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, and Connecticut, are using the program’s framework to develop similar safety-net programs to prevent pets releases. Australia is doing so as well.
One more thing—the fact that you may have a type of pet that is unlikely to reproduce in the wild does not give you a free pass! “Exotic pets can be problematic even if they don’t become invasive species,” says Stringham. “They have the potential to transmit both wildlife and human diseases.”
Chinese water dragons are prone to bacterial infections called pseudomonas, for instance. And other reptiles carry salmonella, botulism, campylobacteriosis, and leptospirosis. Not to mention chytrid and ranavirus in amphibians (and the list goes on).
Finally, if you’re already in over your head with a pet you no longer want and your state doesn’t have an amnesty program, Stringham recommends looking for an exotic pet shelter on PetFinder.com.
Just don’t let your pet end up like Misty—a snack for a hawk or frozen at the bottom of a Pennsylvania pond.
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