Florida is known as a state with a fondness for the exotic, from its long history of accommodating religious cults to the Bubble Room restaurant where every day is Christmas Day. But now time is running out for one type of eccentric Floridian: those who own or breed exotic and invasive reptiles and other non-native animals.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has ruled that within the next few weeks the breeding and dealing of 16 of the most ecologically-damaging non-native species must be brought to a halt. The ban will apply to several types of python that have proliferated to crisis point in the Everglades, as well as all types of tegu lizards, anacondas, Nile monitor lizards and green iguanas.
When the commission debated the rules last month it was inundated with comments, many from exotic pet owners and breeders pleading for the ban not to go ahead. As the Washington Post reported, one woman burst into tears over the idea of losing her pet iguanas and pythons.
“If you take them away, I would be really messed up,” she wailed.
But the spread of invasive species through sensitive ecosystems such as the Everglades is happening at such speed that the state felt duty bound to act. The reptiles are also causing havoc in urban areas.
Green iguanas have multiplied in Florida to such a degree since they were first spotted there in 1960 that they are regarded as an environmental hazard. They puncture seawalls, tear up sidewalks and carry salmonella.
An animal once prized as an exotic curiosity is now widely decried as a pest. The iguanas hang out on roofs, dig under houses and to the horror of home owners can crawl into sewers only to emerge, thrashing around, in the toilet bowl.
The state conservation commission now encourages Floridians to humanely kill the lizards, which can grow up to 5ft and 17lbs, on their own property. No hunting licenses are required.
To soften the blow to besotted pet owners, a concession has been tucked into the new regulations. Anyone who cannot contemplate the thought of being parted from their iguana or tegu can apply for a free permit.
But the reprieve will last only for the life of the animal. Once the critter is gone, it cannot be replaced by a new pet from the list of banned species.