Saturday, June 19, 2010

Experts: Do research before buying pets

By Veronica Mingrone

There is a cute eight-inch snake in the pet shop. Spontaneously, you decide to buy it. Everything seems perfectly fine until one year later, that snake is over five feet long. What now?

Steve Johnson, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, can tell you what NOT to do. Many people look at the easiest solution -- They release their overgrown pet into the wild. These non-native animals that are introduced by people to an area are called invasive animals. These animals can potentially cause economic and health issues.

“Due to the release of the overgrown pets, there are over 50 invasive species of animals in Florida, and most of them are reptiles,” Johnson said.

These animals include lizards, frogs and snakes. They have arrived to Florida, mainly South Florida, through the pet industry.

As if invasive animals aren’t enough of a difficult task, the environmentalists also have to worry about yet another invader: plants.

The government is now spending a lot of time, money and effort to fix these issues. Some commonly used efforts to eradicate these invaders are physical control, mechanical control, biological control and herbicides.

But all these efforts come with a cost, according to Bill Haller, a professor of aquatic and invasive plants.

A mechanical harvester can be bought for around $45,000. But you cannot use a mechanical harvester alone. With the harvester, you need a conveyer, priced at $20,000. These harvesters can only be used in small lakes and ponds because they only cut 5 feet deep and 10 feet wide. That is $65,000 to eradicate invasive plants in one small area.

For larger areas, researchers like Mike Netherland use their expertise to solve issues. As a US Army engineer and researcher, Netherland researches herbicides to eliminate invasive plants. There are hundreds of herbicides, but only 12 can be used in the water.

“The EPA tells us what tests to use. For example, we need to do a breakdown analysis,” he said. The breakdown test guarantees that the herbicide will not break down into a more hazardous chemical in the future. These tests are carefully reviewed and analyzed for a few months before they are used in open water.

The chemicals are dumped into the water using air boats, helicopters, and sprayers.

“These pesticides are not safe. They are, in fact, toxic,” Netherland said.

The way they apply them and how they use them is key. They try to use this herbicide without creating an adverse effect.

Jim Cuda, a member of the department of entomology, knows taking the proper precautions and researching are some of the most important parts in trying to get rid of invasive species. As a professor of biological weed control, he was able to explain one of the many rigorous tests taken by biological control.

For example, they might introduce a specific insect to eradicate an invasive plant in Florida. But these insects might migrate somewhere else. If these insects could do potential damage in Canada, scientists would test the insects with Canadian weather conditions. If the insect cannot survive in Canada, the scientists would feel comfortable releasing them into the wild in Florida.

“If a biological control can harm an endangered animal, we know right away not to use it,” Cuda said.

These are just two of the many precautions they take.

Biological control is never ending and takes a lot of time to produce desired effects. Environmentalists may combine biological and chemical controls to produce a faster and more permanent result.

Every effort made by the government takes time and money to produce desired effects. Some people blame the pet industry for importing these animals. Johnson, however, shifts the blame to the pet owners.

Releasing a pet is against Florida law. Doing so may get you fined or imprisoned. If you have an overgrown pet, the Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation recommend that you return it to the pet store, contact animal control, or euthanize it.

“People should do their research,” Johnson said.

Before you buy a pet, do the proper research. Find out what size they will get. Find out how much money it will take to maintain them. Find out what they will eat. Be knowledgeable on the pet before you become responsible for it.

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