Exotic pets sometimes can get too big to handle

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When several people spotted an "alligator" under the Boston Bridge in Elizabeth Township a few years ago, police, state officials and local reptile lovers stepped up to find the critter.

Larry Furlong, then a waterways conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, caught the 4 1/2-foot reptile he identified as a caiman.

Native to Central and South America, a caiman does, at first glance, resemble an alligator -- unless you're a reptile expert.

Officials thought they had found someone who could take the caiman, but that did not work out and it was killed because there was no place for it to go, said Mr. Furlong, who now works in Somerset as an assistant regional supervisor at the state Fish and Boat Commission.

He said that commission officials no longer search for pet alligators or caimans that have been released into the wild by their former owners.

The gator in the reservoir

In October 2011, a 3-foot alligator was spotted -- and photographed -- by at least two people who saw it in the Beaver Run Reservoir, which spans Bell and Washington townships in Westmoreland County. Despite the efforts of more than a dozen volunteers who searched for two weeks, the alligator was never seen again. It presumably died because alligators are native to Florida, Louisiana and other southeastern states and cannot survive Western Pennsylvania winters.

Officials surmise that the ill-fated caiman and alligator probably were bought as pets when they were very small -- just like three baby alligators that were for sale for $69.99 each Jan. 20 at the Pittsburgh Reptile Show & Sale in Cheswick. Head to tail, they were 12 inches long. The vendor selling them did not have an answer when asked where the reptiles could go when they grew -- possibly to 20 feet long.

Under state law, it is legal in Pennsylvania to buy and sell alligators, caimans and crocodiles. It's also legal to keep them as pets. But it is illegal to release any "nonnative species of reptiles and amphibians" into the wild.

At the show in Cheswick, business was brisk for dozens of vendors selling all kinds of nonnative reptiles and amphibians, including snakes that will grow to 10 to 20 feet long and venomous snakes such as cottonmouths -- all legal in the state.

It is illegal, however, to sell or own the venomous snakes that are native to Pennsylvania: the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake. In addition, 18 non-venomous native snakes are illegal to sell, including the eastern garter, black racer, black rat snake and short-head garter.

For more information: fishandboat.com/faqampr.htm.

State officials said they have come to the conclusion that it is not the state's jurisdiction to regulate the sale and keeping of nonnative reptiles and amphibians, said Eric Levis, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "It's a local issue," he said, which has to be handled by elected officials in cities, boroughs, townships and municipalities.

Local officials can pass legislation outlawing big reptiles, but state officials said they do not have a list of which towns, if any, have passed such regulations.

Public outcry on Facebook in 2011 apparently jettisoned plans to let the Beaver Run reservoir alligator die a natural death in winter.

At least a dozen volunteers set out to rescue the reptile, including Henry Kacprzyk, curator of reptiles and Kids Kingdom at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Mr. Kacprzyk built a trap and baited it. Volunteers used nets to sweep the water.

But the gator was not found.

Even if it had been found, the Pittsburgh Zoo would not have adopted that alligator, or any other. The zoo already has Otis, a 10-foot, 400-pound alligator hatched in 1991, and it is not looking to expand its alligator population.

Every year the zoo gets about two dozen calls from those trying to find new homes for alligators that have reached an unmanageable size. It gets an additional 20 calls about pythons and boas that have grown to great lengths. And, it gets at least 30 calls about red ear sliders, those cute water turtles that grow from the size of a quarter to the size of a dinner plate.

"There was a time when we could place some," Mr. Kacprzyk said, "but now the inn is full" at shelters, sanctuaries and the zoo.

Also, he noted, zoos and sanctuaries are reluctant to take in animals that could carry parasites and disease to their resident animals.

Mr. Kacprzyk said alligators and big snakes, including boas and pythons, are in abundance because they breed easily in captivity.

People often don't plan ahead when picking pets, he said. They usually don't consider, for example, that alligators can live for 55 years.

Part of his job includes educating the public, at programs inside and outside of the zoo, about reptiles and what it takes to keep and care for them.

Last year, the Animal Rescue League Shelter and Wildlife Center took in 26 reptiles, including snakes and iguanas and other lizards.

The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society gets hundreds of calls each year from people who want to turn in alligators and other reptiles, said Gretchen Fieser, director of public relations.

"Many say that the people who sold them little turtles, snakes and alligators said they would not outgrow" the cages, aquariums, terrariums and habitats they were raised in, Ms. Fieser said. But that is not true.

The Humane Society tries to find rescues and sanctuaries that have space for the reptiles, but sometimes the animals are sick or "too aggressive," she said.

Critter capture

So-called "Critter capture" companies are sometimes called by police officers, landlords and neighbors who find unwanted reptiles and amphibians.

"I got a call about a western diamondback rattlesnake in McKees Rocks," said Paul McIntyre, who operates Big Daddy Wildlife Removal on the North Side. "Someone moved out and left it behind."

Mr. McIntyre said he gets about a dozen calls a year about snakes and alligators and noted that so far he has been able to find pet stores or sanctuaries that would take them.

A zoo wanted the rattlesnake that was found in McKees Rocks, he said, but it died, perhaps because it had been left for too long without food.

Forgotten Friends Reptile Sanctuary is a nonprofit that has been operating since 2004 "in the middle of Amish country, Pennsylvania," according to the website, www.forgottenfriend.org. It owns a half-acre sanctuary in Lancaster County.

The only way to contact the sanctuary is by email. Its address and telephone number are not listed -- that's because not long after the address was made available on the Internet, "we got a box of bearded dragons [lizards] shipped from California," said Jesse Rothacker, one of the group's volunteers.

The sanctuary frequently has to say no to taking in animals. Right now, it doesn't have space to take in any more.

It generally has 50-100 reptiles, including an 18-inch alligator. Reptiles available for adoption include a 6-foot-long Colombian red tail boa constrictor named Dr. Hall in honor of the veterinarian who found him in a park. Another adoptable boa "had a caring owner" who was deployed to Iraq, according to the website.

"We average at least one call a week about alligators," Mr. Rothacker said. The sanctuary has rescued an alligator or two, but when they get to be 2 to 3 feet long, it sends them to sanctuaries that can handle bigger reptiles. It costs about $300 to ship them on airplanes, he noted.

Don't send them south

No one should even think about sending an alligator, caiman, crocodile or big snake to Florida, where they can live, grow and reproduce in the wild.

"That's illegal," said Cali Segelson, a Plum native who is the public information coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Alligators that have been raised and fed by humans are especially dangerous when released in the wild, she said, because the alligators will gravitate to people, expecting food. Florida residents are not allowed to keep alligators as pets.

Since August 2010, it has been illegal to acquire a Burmese python in Florida.

Ms. Segelson and her co-workers are getting calls "from all over the world" about the state-sponsored Python Challenge in the Everglades, aimed to reduce the increasing python population there. About 1,000 people signed up to hunt and kill Burmese pythons -- which are not native to Florida -- in the challenge, which began Jan. 12 and runs through Sunday.

The Burmese pythons in Florida are believed have started as pets then were turned loose or, officials speculate, escaped from captivity during hurricanes.

The Burmese python can grow to 20 feet long and is considered an "invasive species" in Florida, where it is feared to be decimating native wildlife and undermining multimillion dollar efforts to restore natural water flow through the Everglades.

The python's coloring helps it blend in with the habitat, making it difficult to find. As of Monday, 50 had been killed in the Python Challenge.

The Florida wildlife commission holds Pet Amnesty Days when people can turn in unwanted animals, including reptiles. From 2003 through 2012, 1,048 animals were turned in.

Reptiles have friends here

Many of those who love and own reptiles and amphibians do not support proposals aimed at outlawing the sale of certain animals.

"It's all about personal responsibility," said Lisa McCune-Noll of the Reptile & Amphibian Society of Pittsburgh, or RASP. Founded in 2011, the group has 314 "likes" on its Facebook page and holds monthly meetings. The next one is Saturday in Allison Park. The group does not have a sanctuary, but it works to educate the public.

Ms. McCune-Noll also operates a traveling public education program called Living Earth Reptile Encounters.

Forgotten Friends Reptile Sanctuary puts on 90 to 150 educational programs every year, with the fees charged paying for the food and care of animals at the sanctuary.

Some reptile lovers have worked with Pennsylvania legislators over the years to try to enact legislation that would outlaw the sale of alligators, said Mr. Rothacker, who is not usually supportive of restrictive legislation. But the intent of the effort is to regulate the big reptile for its own good, he said. The effort went nowhere.

Alligators are not allowed to be sold or kept in neighboring Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, Mr. Rothacker said, which makes Pennsylvania a haven for breeders and brokers who sell them.

Reptile experts advise those who want reptiles or amphibians as pets should adopt them from rescue groups.

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Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087. First Published February 7, 2013 5:00 AM


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