FWC dissuades exotic pet ownership
By BRENDA HAWKINS
Thursday, January 10, 2008DONN BROWN / Staff
Naples resident Michelle Acosta has owned Sabre, an African serval cat, for five years.
Naples resident Michelle Acosta has had some form of exotic large breed cat in her living room for nearly 30 years. Her first cat was a Florida panther, raised from a kitten. After the panther's death from natural causes, she acquired an African serval cat.
While Acosta is not typical of most pet owners, the Florida Wildlife Commission is hoping to dissuade private individuals from raising exotic animals in their homes with new regulations regarding possession of dangerous snakes, lizards and large exotic breeds.
Because she has followed FWC requirements and passed regular inspections over the years, Acosta is exempt from new regulations that will require Class II wildlife owners to have two-and-half acres of property; Class I wildlife owners will have to have five acres.
What's the attraction of owning a large breed exotic cat? Acosta believes wild animals such as her serval, Sabre, are "God's most beautiful creations" and she cherishes the right to keep one in her home. Her view is shared by several other Collier County exotic pet owners on the state's wildlife permit list.
But for pet stores and breeders, the new rules make exotic animals too expensive and too time consuming to stock. Last year, the FWC increased the permit cost for exhibiting venomous snakes from $1,000 to $10,000. Owners are also required to create a critical incident and disaster plan, outlining how they will secure or evacuate the animals in the event of an emergency. Reptile owners must permanently identify the animals with a microchip before they reach a certain size, post cage warnings, keep a detailed inventory of births, deaths or sales, and meet stricter caging and facility requirements, as well as report any escapes.
Pets Plus owner Mike Shepherd said he no longer sells reptiles of concern, such as Burmese pythons and Nile monitor lizards. "A Burmese python isn't really a pet snake," he says. "I personally don't like seeing anything here that doesn't belong, even cats and dogs. Outside of humans, cats and dogs are the most invasive species there are."
Reptile Industries, a breeder in North Naples, doesn't trade in venomous snakes and got rid of most of its "reptiles of concern" inventory long before the FWC move. Owner Mark Bell says there was little market for the creatures and believes stiff permitting fees and hefty insurance requirements will likely spell the end for purely educational traveling demonstrations featuring the animals.
Naples Zoo director David Tetzlaff says the zoo has a $4 million liability policy and a $10,000 surety bond that covers its popular exhibit, "Serpents – Fangs & Fiction," an educational show exhibiting venomous snakes.
"The response from the public has been phenomenal," he says of the exhibit. "I plan to keep growing the collection."
While he does not condone individual ownership of reptiles of concern, Tetzlaff says the use of these animals for public education is vital in an area with so many varieties of reptiles.
"People move down here and don't know what they're looking at," he explains. "Most of the time, snakes are harmless, but people are terrified. They think every snake will kill them. There is really no extreme need to kill any snake."
Tetzlaff sees the FWC changes as a step in the right direction to ensure appropriate licensing and accountability.
"Unless you are a breeder, a serious collector or an institution such as ours, there is really no good reason to have these animals in your home or back yard," he says, adding that he has seen pet stores selling tortoise breeds that can grow up to 150 pounds.
"Then when people have these bulldozers going through their living room, they don't want them any more and they bring them to us," he says. "The stores need to be more responsible with what they are selling and the buyers need to be responsible to know what they are buying. In Collier County there are over 100 permits for exotic animals. That's scary."
Bell concurs, saying micro-chipping reptiles will allow FWC investigators to track escaped or abandoned animals back to their owners.
"Somebody could get in trouble, big time," he said.
At Shy Wolf Sanctuary, owner Nancy Smith has mixed emotions about government's efforts.
"It'll be a very sad day if they consider the wolf the same as a lion or tiger," she said of reclassification debates currently under way. "Wolves have the IQ of a 16-year-old human. It doesn't make sense. They're afraid people will breed wolf-dogs in their back yards."
But she is adamant the FWC should be stricter in other areas.
"I've never met a responsible breeder and the general public has proven they can't be trusted," she says. "In my opinion, it should be mandatory for all breeders to take back any animal that doesn't work out, whether it's a chihuahua, a sugar glider or a parakeet. Exotic animals are a $34 billion industry nationwide each year; but it costs $137 billion to clean up the mess they make."
Acosta agreed, saying people might reconsider exotic pet ownership if they knew the cost, responsibility and work involved. "Having an animal is a 24/7 commitment," she said. "I haven't had a vacation in 32 years. I wish the penalties for possession by unqualified people were more severe."