Creepy critters won't embark on wild life

Owners turn in exotic pets to state officials.

Published March 25, 2007

CLEARWATER - Speedy was the size of a half-dollar when Jay McAllister and his daughter Jaymie purchased the red-eared slider turtle from an Oldsmar pet store several years ago.

Now, he's outgrown the pond in the McAllisters' back yard, and a choice became let Speedy find his way around Dunedin alone, or turn him into the Non-Native Pet Amnesty Day held at Crest Lake Park in Clearwater on Saturday.

Although he was tempted, McAllister decided "it's just not right to let it go."

The amnesty program, sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, saw about 30 exotic pets, mostly reptiles, turned into the custody of state officials.

Owners brought their pets to a small table under a tent, where turtles tried to scratch their way out of cardboard boxes, snakes writhed in burlap sacks and large iguanas frowned stoically in their small cages.

Organizers say the program began in response to the abundance of nonnative animals introduced into the environment - an act that is dangerous for the animals, the public and Central Florida's subtropical ecosystem.

"They don't belong there," said Dr. Janine Cianciolo, an exotic animal veterinarian in Pinellas County. "They don't belong there at all."

Conservation officials say that released Burmese pythons have recently invaded the Everglades, battling the native alligators for supremacy and disrupting the region's ecology while doing so. And the snakes are mating, which exacerbates the problem.

Cianciolo said owning a reptile can be up to a 20-year endeavor, a commitment not often considered by owners who purchase pets for a novelty. Arboreal iguanas need tall cages. Snakes will eventually require more nourishment than tiny mice. Baby turtles outgrow ponds.

"All of these pets need special care," she said.

Every pet was up for immediate adoption, and about 15 were to be picked up by new owners. The others would face a darker fate.

"If we don't find a good home, they're going to be put down," said Doreen Saccardo, a member of the Suncoast Herpetological Society, a group dedicated to educating the public about responsible reptile ownership.

As owners of four cats, one dog, a bird and a pit with four snakes, 51-year-old Gail Dahl and her daughter Erica, 15, of St. Petersburg are exactly the type of pet owners that make good adoption candidates, organizer said.

After a little prodding from Erica, an aspiring herpetologist, the Dahls adopted a new snake, a blind Burmese python that was turned in hours earlier.

While "Anomaly" - all 10 shiny, marbled black and tan feet of her - wrapped around Erica's arms and around her Snakes on a Plane T-shirt, Erica examined her new pet, face to face.

"How can you turn down a face like this?"