Sunday, February 12, 2006

Officials shops put squeeze on monitors

Officials shops put squeeze on monitors

Cape gets help in bid to eliminate lizards

 

By Charles Runnells

crunnells@news-press.com

Originally posted on February 12, 2006

 

IF YOU GO

• What: Public meeting about the Nile monitor lizard

• When: 6:30-8:30. p.m. on Wednesday

• Where: Council chambers at Cape Coral City Hall, 1015 Cultural Park Blvd.

 

NILE MONITOR LIZARD

• Scientific name: Varanus niloticus

• Origin: Africa

First Cape Coral sighting: 1990

• Identifying features: Torpedo-shaped head, snakelike body with legs, no spines, smooth skin

• Color: Dark-green to black, sometimes with yellow spots.

• Preferred habitat: Canals, banks, soft earth where they can dig burrows

• Population: Unknown, but thought to be in the thousands

• Maximum Size: 7 feet in the wild, 4 to 6 feet in captivity. Males tend to be larger.

• Diet: Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, insects, eggs, whole eggs, carrion

• Habits: They can be hostile, lashing out with their tails at practically any provocation. They’re capable of climbing trees, and are also excellent swimmers and divers. They can remain underwater up to one hour.

• Mating season: April to September

• Hatching season: January to March

— Source: The News-Press research

 

 

While Cape Coral and other areas get tough on monitor lizards, the creatures still remain legal as pets.

 

But don't count on finding the predator available in stores.

 

Most pet stores don't carry the voracious lizards, mainly because of their reputation.

 

Scientists fret Nile monitors could destroy Cape Coral's burrowing owls and whatever else they can get their jaws around. And, if unchecked, the large lizards could spread throughout Lee County and Florida.

 

They already popped up last year in Sanibel. Who knows where they could show up next?

 

"I won't sell them because of the problems we're having," said Tom Guscinski, owner of Discount Pets in Cape Coral. "People will just let these things loose, and that'll destroy the ecosystem around here."

 

That's probably how they ended up hanging out near Cape Coral's canals and waterways in the first place. People likely bought them as pets years ago, and then quickly dumped them when they got to be 4 to 6 feet long, ravenous and mean-spirited.

 

Scientists and city officials estimate there are thousands of Nile monitor lizards roaming the Cape. That's the largest population in Florida and perhaps in North America.

 

U.S. officials are taking note. They're coming to Cape Coral Wednesday to survey the city's lizard program, and they're considering sending trappers and biologists to assist the city's trapping program later this year.

 

There also will be a 6:30 p.m. meeting at City Hall to answer questions.

 

Karleen Canas said she's glad monitors are getting the attention they deserve. Last May, Canas discovered the first confirmed case of a monitor lizard eating a burrowing owl.

 

"It's frightening," Canas said. "If something is not done, they're going to take over."

 

Because of all this publicity, the lizards' popularity appears to be waning. Pet shops report there isn't much interest anymore.

 

• Scientific name: Varanus niloticus

 

• Origin: Africa

 

First Cape Coral sighting: 1990

 

• Identifying features: Torpedo-shaped head, snakelike body with legs, no spines, smooth skin

 

• Color: Dark-green to black, sometimes with yellow spots.

 

• Preferred habitat: Canals, banks, soft earth where they can dig burrows

 

• Population: Unknown, but thought to be in the thousands

 

• Maximum Size: 7 feet in the wild, 4 to 6 feet in captivity. Males tend to be larger.

 

• Diet: Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, insects, eggs, whole eggs, carrion

 

• Habits: They can be hostile, lashing out with their tails at practically any provocation. They're capable of climbing trees, and are also excellent swimmers and divers. They can remain underwater up to one hour.

 

• Mating season: April to September

 

• Hatching season: January to March

 

Source: The News-Press research

 

• Scientific name: Varanus niloticus

 

• Origin: Africa

 

First Cape Coral sighting: 1990

 

• Identifying features: Torpedo-shaped head, snakelike body with legs, no spines, smooth skin

 

• Color: Dark-green to black, sometimes with yellow spots.

 

• Preferred habitat: Canals, banks, soft earth where they can dig burrows

 

• Population: Unknown, but thought to be in the thousands

 

• Maximum Size: 7 feet in the wild, 4 to 6 feet in captivity. Males tend to be larger.

 

• Diet: Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, insects, eggs, whole eggs, carrion

 

• Habits: They can be hostile, lashing out with their tails at practically any provocation. They're capable of climbing trees, and are also excellent swimmers and divers. They can remain underwater up to one hour.

 

• Mating season: April to September

 

• Hatching season: January to March

 

Source: The News-Press research

 

attention they deserve. Last May, Canas discovered the first confirmed case of a monitor lizard eating a burrowing owl.

 

"It's frightening," Canas said. "If something is not done, they're going to take over."

 

Because of all this publicity, the lizards' popularity appears to be waning. Pet shops report there isn't much interest anymore.

 

The News-Press called 12 Lee County pet shops Thursday and Friday, and not one had monitor lizards.

 

Seven pet shops said they refuse to carry the lizards. Two shops said they carry monitors, but they were out of stock. And three said they'll only special-order monitors for people, but they'll try to talk customers out of it first, steering them to calmer, user-friendly lizards.

 

"I don't want them to be an impulse buy," said Angela Chin, co-owner of Squawk & Scales in Cape Coral. "People don't realize how big they get."

 

The lizards also can be bought online and through newspaper classified ads.

 

Thanks to all the problems, some people are trying to change the legality of Nile monitor lizards in Florida. Or, at least, they want to make sure owners are held more accountable.

 

Thursday, two state senators announced plans to require a $100 permit for anyone who wants to own a Nile monitor, Burmese python or several other non-native reptiles.

 

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, and Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, said they don't want to stop people from owning the creatures. They just want to make sure they're disposed of properly instead of getting dumped outside, where they can mate and grow in numbers.

 

A key part of the proposed bill will be an amnesty program, Poppell said. That would allow owners who grow tired of their gigantic lizards and snakes to drop them off with wildlife officials — penalty-free.

 

"Better to let them loose on us than let them loose at the end of your street," Posey said.

 

Even so, University of Florida biologist Todd Campbell wants to take that a step further and ban Nile monitors as pets altogether.

 

Campbell said he's been speaking with other scientists and a few state wildlife officials, and he hopes to push for a ban in the near future.

 

Campbell has made it his job to find ways to trap and kill the creatures. Campbell oversees a Cape study to trap the lizards, track them with transmitters and learn more about them — all to devise better ways to kill them off.

 

"I think we have to bring this to the next level," he said.

 

Campbell can't figure why anyone would want a monitor lizard as a pet. That's especially the case with Nile monitors, which get meaner as they get bigger.

 

They're cute when they're 10-12 inches long and fit in the palm of your hand. But they keep growing, eating more food and requiring bigger and bigger enclosures.

 

Adult monitors can top 6 feet long — 7 in the wild.

 

Nile monitors can be tamed with daily handling by their owner, said Chin of Squawk & Scales. But they can revert to a hissing, wild state in no time.

 

Most lizards will turn wild after a few weeks or months without human contact. Not monitors, though. If you don't handle them for a day or two, they'll start biting and clawing again.

 

"And once that happens, out the door they go," Chin said.

 

Once they're wild, monitors can be extremely violent, even standing on their hind legs and whipping with their tails to thrash at people or animals.

 

With all of their faults, the lizards are still interesting creatures, said Michael Orchin, president of the wildlife advocacy group Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife. And he can see why people might want them as pets. He keeps a small Nile monitor — about a foot long — in an aquarium in his living room.

 

Orchin said he's taken great pains not to get attached to the creature. It will eventually get euthanized, after all.

 

He doesn't handle the lizard much, for example. And he hasn't named it.

 

"It's just called 'Lizard,'" he said.

 

A city official trapped the lizard in a stack of housing tiles in Southwestern Cape Coral, and gave it to Orchin for educational purposes such as exhibiting at festivals and public events.

 

Still, Orchin said it isn't easy hating lizards, which — after all — are just doing what they're designed to do.

 

And, he admitted, he may get attached, anyway.

 

"Ask me in a year," he said with a smile. "I may have a huge enclosure in my backyard."

 

— Paige St. John, a Tallahassee bureau reporter for The News-Press, contributed to this story.

http://www.news-press.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060212/NEWS0105/602120416/1075

 

 

For the cats,

 

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue

an Educational Sanctuary home

to more than 150 big cats

12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625

813.920.4130 fax 885.4457 cell 493.4564

http://www.BigCatRescue.org MakeADifference@BigCatRescue.org

 

Meet our recent mountain lion cub rescues:

http://www.bigcatrescue.org/rescuenewscubs.htm

 

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