Trouble starts when exotic 'pets' are set free

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The astonishing amount of damage that can be caused when exotic pets are set free is amply illustrated by the Washington area’s very own ecological misadventure that continues to baffle Virginia and Maryland fisheries biologists.

Someone, we know not who, set free a number of exotic, imported aquarium fish in a suburban farm pond and  also in the Potomac River not far from President George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.

The unwanted intruder has been identified as the Northern snakehead, a Chinese import that multiplies like fleas, is able to live on land for a short period of time, even do a little land traveling, and worst of all — once it takes hold in any water — establishes a firm population that competes with native species for food and critically important habitat.

We call the initial introduction of the snakehead fish into the historic Potomac a release of “pets” because they were owned by someone who probably enjoyed looking at them cavorting in an aquarium, but eventually didn’t feel like caring for them any longer as they grew larger and hungrier, hence let them go. Yes, most people think of pets as furry, feathery or scaly critters that can walk or fly, but fish might also qualify for the designation.

Now comes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that is pleading with the citizens of the Sunshine State: “If you have an exotic pet you can’t care for anymore, please don’t just open the front door and set it free.”

The commission recently held its fourth Non-native Pet Amnesty Day at the Jacksonville  Zoo and Gardens where it asked no questions or levied fines and legal charges against anyone who brought in exotic reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish and mammals. It would accept anything that didn’t belong in Florida, but would not accept homeowners’ dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets.

“Our main purpose is to give pet owners an alternative to releasing non-native animals into the wild,” said Jenny Tinnell, a biologist for the FWC. “It’s illegal to release a nonnative animal into the wild in Florida, and it could be detrimental for the animal and the environment.”

The latter part of Tinnell’s statement, of course, applies to all the states. You’re simply not permitted to take it upon yourself to alter the natural environment and introduce non-native species of any kind, be they pets or not, into America.

In the case of Florida, more than 400 non-native species have been observed, with more than 130 of them reproducing and increasing formerly tiny populations.

Imagine how much damage the careless introduction of zebra mussels caused in the Great Lakes states. Sure, they weren’t pets, but it is thought that they clung to the hulls of foreign ships, or were flushed out by the ships’ bilge pumps and took hold in new water. They now are an ecological disaster.

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