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Discarded Exotic Pets

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

In this blog post we will be discussing exotic pets, such as reptiles. Here at Windsor Animal Hospital we do not treat exotics. If you are in or around the Florence area and need a veterinarian that specializes in exotics, we highly recommend reaching out to the professionals at Cornerstone Animal Hospital.

On a brisk October night back in 2021 I had just left my mother's house and began the 30-minute-drive back home through country backroads. A car in front of my tossed something out of their window and as I slowly approached it began to look like a turtle. I pulled over to make sure it was okay, but upon inspection what I had initially assumed was an Eastern Box Turtle turned out to be a Russian Tortoise. This tortoise, pictured below, was severely dehydrated, had an overgrown beak, overgrown nails. damage to the shell from both improper nutrition (causing denting on the top) and from hitting the hard pavement, infected eyes, and a respiratory infection.

This Russian Tortoise spent the next month trying to recover from the neglect and ultimate disposal that he suffered with his former owner. He is now very happy and healthy, living out the rest of his days with me in my home (video evidence below).

The above scenario plays out frequently all across America. It has had a devastating impact in certain states, such as Florida. Exactly who may be to blame for this is a frequent topic of heated debates online, with some groups suggesting it is the fault of exotic owners and breeders. Others claiming that it is irresponsible ownership is the main contributor and that responsible owners and breeders are actually fighting for humane care and treatment of exotics. Some say the solution is legislation. Some say the solution is simply educating the public. And some say the solution is to ban the sale and/or ownership of exotics entirely. Rather than getting caught up in that debate, I'm going to explain what some will think is obvious; why you should NEVER release captive animals, exotic or otherwise.

My tortoise was lucky. I had prior knowledge on tortoise husbandry, thanks in part to me being heavily involved in reptile keeping and breeding. And had I left my mother's home even a minute earlier, I wouldn't have been behind that car and I wouldn't have been there to stop and pick him up. This probably won't surprise anyone reading this, but an unacclimated Russian Tortoise, especially one riddled with illness, is not likely to survive a South Carolina winter. But not only could he have met an unfortunate end, he could have taken many native animals with him.

A huge part of why you should never release captive animals into the wild is contamination. Captive animals can carry novel viruses, fungus, and bacteria for which native wildlife may not have any defenses. This is especially true for birds and fish. Releasing the two parakeets that you've had for 6 months because your 9-year-old is bored with them now and you're tired of hearing their screeching at 6am isn't the way to go. Releasing that goldfish that your daughter left behind when she went off to college is a bad idea.

Speaking of fish - they are especially likely to cause damage to local waterways by way of disease transition and - depending on the species of fish - outcompeting for resources that are needed for native fish. For example, the Common Goldfish, if not preyed upon first, can live for decades and is able to survive in South Carolina waters. As the fish grows it eats anything that can fit into it's mouth. It is mostly herbivorous by nature, but will take the opportunity to eat small fish, invertebrates, and amphibians. So not only will it be demolishing the aquatic plants that our native waterways need, they will be eating the fish themselves and the prey many of these fish species need to survive. A few Common Goldfish can wreak havoc on a natural pond or stream. They can breed several times a year, releasing thousands upon thousands of eggs.

Goldfish removed from Michigan waterways

Goldfish in particular are an invasive species that are thriving in freshwater, but causing ecological damage and endangering native species. In the Niagara River, officials pulled out a 14-inch goldfish. In Minnesota, the city of Burnsville displayed an 18-inch goldfish found in Keller Lake, and wildlife officials in Carver County caught as many as 50,000 pounds of goldfish living in multiple lakes. The devastation left behind is terrible. And our native waters are largely defenseless against these foreign threats.

A non-native Tegu lizard collected in Florida

When pets get too large or difficult to keep, some people think letting them loose is the humane thing to do. That’s not the case. Most pets will starve or freeze to death during winter, or die from heat or predation in the summer. And those that survive can cause significant impacts. Over time they can literally change the environment around them, resulting in deadly outcomes for many native species. It's also illegal. Because an illegal introduction can have disastrous impacts to a fishery or even an entire ecosystem, the crime carries some of the highest penalties that exist for wildlife violations.

There can even be a risk to humans. Novel viruses and various infections can become zoonotic, which means they are transferable to humans.

If you need to rehome an exotic animal you can also post online, taking care to vet any potential owners to make sure they have the knowledge necessary to care for the animal. Additionally, calling around to your local vet clinics may yield a potential home, considering most people who work in animal clinics are familiar with general husbandry and most clinics have at least one employee who is familiar with exotics and might be able to provide your pet its new home (or know someone who can).

If you can no longer take care of your pet or no longer want it, we follow other experts in recommending you follow the CARE system:

Contact the place where you purchased the pet to see if they will take it back.

Act Responsibly by never letting animals or plants loose into the wild.

Research other places that may be able to provide a new home for your pet. Pet stores, zoos, aquariums, science centers, animal shelters, and humane societies may be able to help.

Euthanize the animal in a humane way. It may be hard to consider, an this may sound cruel to many people, but this option is far kinder than letting it starve to death in the wild or destroy the homes of native animals. Always freeze unwanted plants and throw them out in the trash.

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