How animals can go from pets to pests when released in the wild
A few years ago, I took a call at the nature center about a big snake in Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve. The caller was pretty rattled, and she wanted someone to "do something."
We naturalists are pretty used to snake calls. I calmly suggested, "It could be a fox snake. Not at all dangerous." As I began to launch into the benefits of native snakes, she interrupted. "No! It's really big!"
One of our rangers had received a similar call and was already out looking for the suspect serpent. He spotted some kids clustered around a tree with mouths agape and easily homed in on the problem.
There, coiled on a branch, was a REALLY big snake. It was a four-foot ball python. The source of the exotic reptile could only be a pet owner who didn't want it anymore.
Castoff critters are a local and a worldwide ecological problem. In the case of the Tekakwitha Woods python, no harm was done (that we know of). An animal control expert captured the snake, which was put up for adoption with a more responsible owner. But untold numbers of pets released in natural areas are not retrieved. Scads of them reproduce and wreak ecological and economic havoc.
Take Chance the Snapper, the headline-grabbing gator in Chicago who held media attention last July. An anonymous pet owner released it in Humboldt Park. A coldblooded creature, Chance would have little chance of survival in our brutal winter, but he could do significant damage to wildlife, people and property in the meantime.
Chance evaded capture for a week. Finally, the city of Chicago brought in the big guns, hiring a gator-trapper from Florida with a price-tag upward of $30,000.
Less ominous than an alligator or a python on the loose is the common goldfish. Yes, the tiny orange fish that you brought home from the pet store in a plastic bag can become a 10-pound monster in the wild.
"Goldfish are one of the world's worst invasive aquatic species," according to an article in The New York Times. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources reported that goldfish are present in almost all waterways of Illinois.
What makes little Swimmy so pernicious in the wild? Goldfish are omnivorous and fecund -- in other words, they'll eat anything in their path and make tons of babies. They roil up the stream bed and muddy the waters for native species that need clear streams. They also carry diseases that are easily transmitted to native fish.
Other animals frequently let loose in natural areas are frogs, birds, and turtles. Lots of turtles. I once watched a woman release an unwanted red-eared slider in the salt marsh where I worked in the San Francisco Bay Area. I couldn't stop her in time. This eastern, freshwater turtle wasn't long for the world in the salt marsh.
The best turtle release story can be traced to Al Capone. The Chicago Tribune reported, "In November 1930, a 'deluge' of box turtles was 'mysteriously let loose' on South Michigan Avenue ... The owner of those turtles … was none other than Al Capone. Capone had attempted to cash in on the increasingly popular sport of turtle racing, hoping to feature it at his speak-easies. … The legendary mobster had an underling purchase 5,000 turtles in Oklahoma. When the venture didn't pan out, a frustrated Capone had his henchmen dump the turtles, which was how 2,000 of them turned up on Michigan Avenue, and another 3,000 or so surfaced in Cicero."
Scarface's motives aside, why do people release pets in the wild? Boredom, perhaps? Kids easily tire of sedentary pets. (Box turtles are famously unexciting.) Parents don't want to clean or feed them. There's also the expense. Keeping pets costs money, and resentment grows along with the dollars spent on the darn critter.
Like the turtle in the tank, a pet owner finds himself between a rock and a hard place. The animal's gotta go, but what are the options? Euthanizing the pet seems barbaric and heartless. (And what would you tell the kids?) That leaves the Free Willy solution. Return the animal to the wild and watch it swim/fly/crawl into the sunset.
Hold on a minute. Releasing a pet may seem like a gesture of love, but, in reality, it's cruel. It's also illegal in natural areas. The wild is no ecological nirvana for an animal born and raised in captivity.
"The fallout can be catastrophic," according to a July 2019 National Geographic article. "If the animal doesn't die as a result of predation, exposure, or starvation, it may find a mate, proliferate, and become an invasive species."
What's the solution? Naturalist Pam Otto with the St. Charles Park District has solid advice.
"First and foremost, realize what you're getting into before you ever bring the critter home," Otto says. "Budgies, goldfish and rabbits live upward of 10 years; snakes and salamanders over 20 years; turtles anywhere from 30 to 80-plus years, depending on species. Getting an animal when it's young means you're signing up for (a long) period of caretaking and responsibility. Instead of getting a hatchling snake, adopt one that's 15 years old. It will still have 5 to 10 good years left. Boom! You've cut your time commitment in half."
If you must part with your pet, Otto says, "Rescue groups are an option. Besides the Chicago Herpetological Society, we've worked with Friends of Scales, Fur Angels and the Greater Chicago Caged Bird Club. These are all-volunteer organizations that house homeless pets in foster homes and adopt out via application."
Sometimes pet stores will take healthy, older pets as display animals, she added.
In our heart of hearts, most of us want to do right by the animal. Remember, most pets are not equipped to survive in the wild. Those that do become pests in no time. Say goodbye in a way that respects your pet and the natural environment.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist, recently retired from the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.