Conservationists See a Hurricane Risk: Florida’s Exotic Pets Could Escape

Florida, with its muggy, swamp-like conditions, has long been a hub for exotic breeding. More wildlife shipments pass through Miami’s ports than anywhere else in the country except New York and Los Angeles. Once a year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission organizes an amnesty pet drop-off: Keepers can give up their king cobras, Komodo dragons and other exotic species, no questions asked.

Commercial keepers need a permit for certain nonnative species. Those who apply must submit a disaster plan to the wildlife commission, but they create the plan themselves. “It’s really just for their own use,” said Gaby Vega, a spokeswoman for the commission’s Captive Wildlife Office.

In an evacuation, the reptile keeper’s association advises slipping snakes into a bag and putting the bag, tied closed, inside a crate. Owners can take the crate with them or anchor it to the ground with a rope, so that the snake doesn’t drown or float away.

“To have something happen similar to what happened with Burmese python, that’s extremely unlikely,” said Phil Goss, the association’s president. “We only advocate for responsible keeping.”

Mike Van Nostrand, who owns Strictly Reptiles, a reptile wholesaler and breeder in Hollywood, Fla., said he wasn’t worried about the 10,000 animals inside his shop, many of which are exotic. “I don’t have a plan,” he said. “My building is a fortress. It isn’t going anywhere.”

Tony Daly-Crews, who keeps about 70 animals, lives in Jacksonville, which is expecting only a Category 2 or 3 storm. He said he would be bagging, crating and locking his eastern diamondback rattlesnakes inside his breeding facility. Had the forecast called for a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, he said he would have tried to evacuate his home. (On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services waived regulations that restricted interstate reptile travel.)

Conservationists also worry about other types of animals. Peter Jenkins, president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention, said nonnative tropical fish could enter waterways from breeding ponds during storm surges.

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The Schaus swallowtail butterfly is at risk of being wiped out by Hurricane Irma.

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Photo Illustration by The New York Times; Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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