When animals kept as exotic pets show up in the wild it is usually difficult to know whether the animal escaped or was purposely released. Of course, owners should be taking precautions to make sure their pets do not escape but some people believe that when their exotic pets get too difficult to manage that it is okay to release them into the wild. The reasons for choosing to release them into the wild are endless.
Perhaps they couldn't find another home for the pet or a shelter wouldn't take them. But regardless of the reasons given, no pet should be released into the wild.
Exotic Pets Can't Survive in the Wild
The harsh reality is that the vast majority of released pets will die when left to fend for themselves outside. Some will die quickly, possibly after getting hit by a vehicle or running into a predator, and others will die a long, slow death by starvation. Either way, it is extremely cruel to abandon a pet in the wild. Captive bred animals do not have the skills needed to survive in the wild and even those that were originally wild-caught still have a difficult time adapting to a new environment where their usual food is not available or the conditions may not be suitable for their species. Life in the wild is no picnic, especially for animals that are used to free food and shelter. Of course some animals become the exceptions to the usual scenario but there still isn't typically a happy ending.
Released Exotic Pets Destroy the Ecosystem
Given the right animals in the right ecosystem, released exotic pets may find success and colonize in the wild. However, this is often an ecological or agricultural disaster. There are numerous examples of invasive species (when an introduced plant or animal has become established to the extent where it "takes over" an ecosystem and diminishes native populations).
Invasive species can cause problems by preying on native plants and animals, competing for limited resources, or by introducing parasites and diseases not normally found in the area.
Not all instances of invasive species can be attributed to the pet trade but there are a few environments where released animals have become established and caused damage. Red eared sliders are quite adaptable at colonizing lakes or ponds and they often thrive at the expense of other species. Parakeets have successfully colonized some areas to the detriment of native species and agriculture. Giant African Land Snails are considered a huge risk of becoming an invasive species due to their voracious appetites and amazing reproductive rates. Warmer climates are often more hospitable reptile invaders and iguanas and Burmese pythons have established huge populations in Florida. Iguanas are doing a fair amount of damage to the local vegetation as well as becoming a general nuisance and Burmese pythons are feeding on local wildlife and becoming a major concern in the Everglades. Another example of invasive reptiles is with chameleons in Hawaii.
Released Exotic Pets Can Become a Neighborhood Nuisance
We've all heard stories of snakes lurking in the plumbing or alligators in the sewers of large cities and while many of these are urban legends the scenarios are not that far-fetched.
It is not uncommon for snakes that have been released into the wild to survive for some time in a warm climate (since they can easily find a hiding spot and don't eat very often). Every so often news stories appear about constrictors being spotted in unlikely neighborhoods (and often suspected in the disappearances of neighborhood pets). Some snakes are large enough to pose a risk to people, especially children. Other exotic animals such as non-domestic cats (like lions and Savannah cats) are also troublesome since they could pose a risk to not only other pets but to humans as well.
Regardless of whether or not exotic pets released into the wild are a danger, a nuisance, or a threat to the ecosystem, releasing your exotic pet into the wild is terribly irresponsible. Just don't do it.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT