By Emmy Boyd
As an expert on exotic creatures, Steve Johnson has heard it all when it comes to animals becoming stuck in tight situations.
“I had a friend whose parents’ sink was clogged for a good amount of time,” he said with a chuckle. “They couldn’t figure out the problem until they went to check the pipes and found a couple of Cuban Tree Frogs stuck in the piping.”
While this funny anecdote is fairly common for Florida residents, it is a very serious problem that many overlook, especially because a majority of these creatures are invasive species that are not only a nuisance to people but the environment as well. Currently, there are 50 invasive reptile species in South Florida alone.
“My definition of invasive is an organism, such as a reptile or amphibian that is not native, brought by people and can cause natural harm,” Johnson said.
As an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, Johnson has aimed his focus on educating the public on the issue of bringing invasive species out of their natural habitats. One major problem he is dedicated to changing is the pet industry.
“People want exotic animals that they think are cute and cuddly, like an iguana,” he said. “What they don’t realize is that they grow to become very large, aggressive and difficult to manage. Once they figure this out they will often set them into the woods behind their house, which, in the end, does much more harm than good.”
A fairly simple solution to this problem would be to not purchase one of these creatures in the first place. But if one were to already buy an animal and feel the easiest solution would be to set it free, they should reconsider.
“Many students from UF will dump out their aquariums into Lake Alice at the end of the school year instead of taking them home because they don’t want to kill the fish, but they are letting their emotions rule their actions. They’re not doing the fish a favor and not doing the environment a favor,” Johnson said.
So why not just bring the animal back to its native habitat? When brought into a new environment, animals become infected with natural diseases native to the habitat where they live, which, while they have grown immune to them, could become harmful to the other animals native to its habitat.
“Our goal is not to take a problem and move it elsewhere,” he said.
Organizations such as the Southeastern Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are working with the pet industry to regulate how many of these invasive species are brought into the state for public purchase.
“Sometimes [the pet industry] is stubborn and doesn’t want to be regulated,” Johnson said. “But there’s a point where you have to put your foot down to make sure they’re not harming the environment.”