"We are only going to have until June 2024 to get rid of our family members," Carlos Michaelsen, owner of Tropical Reptiles and Exotics, said in a video viewed more than 25,000 times on Instagram. "These aren't just animals to us, these are family members."
Michaelsen and his wife, Nancy, specialize in hybrids and so-called morphs, which are reptiles that have genetic mutations that make them look unique and are in very high demand. They are calling on reptile lovers to write to FWC to oppose the new regulation, arguing it fails to address the expansion of harmful invasive species "while punishing responsible citizens."
Everglades restoration advocates have been pushing for an end to the exotic reptile trade because of the risk such reptiles pose to billions of dollars' worth of restoration work — including programs to revive native species that were on the brink of extinction, like the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.
The python's impact on small native animals has been documented, and the state is spending over $2 million every year to deal with them. Iguanas can cause extensive damage and increase the costs of maintaining water management infrastructure, and the tegus may become a threat to native birds with their hunger for eggs. The state spent almost $1 million last year on research and removal of tegus from environmentally sensitive areas.
The state restricted the sale and ownership of Burmese pythons in 2010 when it included the snake on the so-called conditional species list.
Now FWC says the tegu has the potential to be just as destructive as the python. The lizard, a native of South America that can grow to four feet in length, is another likely escapee from the exotic pet trade. It has a preference for crocodile and tortoise eggs but has been documented eating hatchlings and native plants. Sightings have soared in South Miami-Dade and in Everglades National Park in the past few years. Last year several babies were found, a sign the large lizards have started to reproduce inside the park.
While Burmese pythons have been slithering around the Everglades for decades, tegus are relatively new. Last year 34 tegus were removed from Everglades National Park, and 958 were trapped in areas adjacent to the park, compared with nine tegus captured inside in 2019 and 584 just outside. The first tegu was reported in the park in 2017. Now there are four well-established populations in Florida with reports as far north as the Panhandle.
"Invasive species of animals and plants are one of the greatest challenges of our time. The spread of pythons in South Florida taught us a difficult lesson," park Superintendent Pedro Ramos said. "Now it is up to all of us, government and citizens, to come together not only to prevent further spread of species of high concern such as the python and the tegus, but also to avoid additional species from establishing populations in our environment."
But lizard and snake keepers say that prohibiting their trade is regulatory overreach. They say that banning certain species from commercial activities won't solve the invasive reptile problem because some of these animals, like the green iguana and pythons, are way past the point of containment. Reptile business owners also say the proposed rules are not based on science, and that they will hurt an industry that for the most part plays by the rules.
"Instead of targeting us and coming up with new rules, they should focus on removing the invasive species that are already in the wild," said Phil Goss, president of the national U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers.