JWM: Engaging pet trade important in stopping invasives

Because released and escaped exotic pets are a big contributor to the establishment of invasive species in Florida, researchers found engaging and gaining the trust of the owners of exotic pets is important in stopping these invasions.

“There are a couple states where it is a big issue, mainly because of the number of imports that occur in these states,” said Diane Episcopio-Sturgeon, a PhD student at the University of Florida. “However, Florida and Texas are heavily looked at in the pet trade because of the conducive climate for invasive species. The climate is really conducive to the survival of species accustomed to more tropical environments.”

Episcopio-Sturgeon led a study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management that she worked on as a master’s student at the University of Florida, looking at how Florida residents — those who own pets and those who don’t — feel about different ways of mitigating pets and their invasion potential.

She and her colleagues conducted mail-in and online surveys in 2017-2018 of 1,171 members of the general public and 550 people who owned nonnative species as pets. The surveys asked respondents their opinions on seven possible interventions to the risk of invasion from the pet trade. Those interventions included limiting trade to species with the smallest invasion risk, requiring training for exotic pet owners, imposing a 72-hour waiting period to purchase a nonnative pet and bring it home, implementing a tracking system to identify pets if they’re released or if they escape, requiring sellers to keep detailed information on nonnative pets sold, euthanizing released or escaped nonnative animals and the capture and re-sale of non-native animals into the pet trade.

Repticons, or reptile and exotic animal conventions, provide an opportunity for members of the public to purchase nonnative species as pets.

They also measured the respondents’ knowledge about nonnative and invasive species and their concerns about the effects of invasive species.

The researchers found exotic pet owners were less supportive of intervention than the public in general.

The team also found that attitude and concerns about the effects of invasive species toward the animal was a stronger predictor of respondents’ support of intervention measures than knowledge about nonnative species. “Simply educating and increasing knowledge does not always result in behavioral changes organizations are looking for,” Episcopio-Sturgeon said. “Although individuals with an increase in knowledge of the contribution of pet trade to invasive species did have an increased support for management actions.”

But that doesn’t mean education efforts should be avoided, she said.

She and her colleagues suggest efforts should not necessarily include informing pet owners and the public about invasive species. Instead, they should help buyers better understand the animals they’re about to buy to prevent disappointments that can lead to deliberate releases later on. Buyers “may feel the animals are getting too large, too aggressive or costing more than they thought they would, resulting in releases, because they thought that’s the most humane way,” Episcopio-Sturgeon said.

The researchers also found that trust is important in creating support for mitigation measures. Florida has a long history of distrust between the scientific community, wildlife officials and the pet trade, she said. “One key thing going into this research is to have an open mind to all sides.”

Episcopio-Sturgeon hopes the study can help inform lawmakers about how to build trust and compliance with pet owners in order to support management actions to decrease invasive risks.

“A lot of these pet owners care about these animals,” she said, “but they might not know the best way to help these animals or help the environment in terms of releases accidental and deliberate releases.”

This article features research that was published in a TWS peer-reviewed journal. Individual online access to all TWS journal articles is a benefit of membership. Join TWS now to read the latest in wildlife research.

Header Image: Exotic pets like this bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) are of particular concern in Florida, where they can become invasive species if released. ©Mac Armstrong