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'Dragons' in our midst

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Green and brown anoles are the most common native species in Southwest Florida but they are quickly being outnumbered by exotic species that are let go by pet owners and breeders which is of concern to wildlife officers and homeowners alike.
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission photo
RIVERVIEW — The growing problem of dangerous nonnative snakes in parts of Florida has made the news several times during the past few months.

Wildlife officers say exotic reptiles sighted on the loose are usually abandoned pets that became too large, or too dangerous, for their owners to handle.

Recently, Jane Lange of Summerfield and her daughter Vickie Howle of Riverview had their own up-close-and-personal encounter, not with a snake, but with a lizard large enough that at first they thought it was an alligator.

Not the common green or brown anoles, which are plentiful all over South County and can be easily recognized by their long, skinny tails and brightly-colored expanding throats, this dragon-like creature, native to Argentina, is reported to have been between four and five feet long, including its tail.

“I’ve seen all kinds of lizards, and alligators on the golf courses, but this one was different. I had never seen one like it before,” Jane said in an interview following her encounter. “I got out of the car and started trying to get a photograph of it, but I was nervous and first I shot up at the sky and then down, but I finally did get a picture.”

Jane said the reptile was extremely fast, and made a strange noise, not like an alligator or a snake, but a strange kind of hiss.

She was surprised that it stood still and stared at her for as long as it did, but then when it did finally run away its tail was strong enough to knock over some flowerpots in a neighbor’s yard as it zigzagged past them.


Robert and Jane Lange have been in Florida nearly 30 years and have never seen a lizard like the one she recently spotted while driving with her daughter Vickie Howle.
Penny Fletcher Photo
Scott Hardin, exotic species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, based in its home office in Tallahassee, says the department is aware of so many exotic lizards being released in Florida that the ratio of native to nonnative is now 3-to-1.

“We know there are Tegus in the reclaimed scrub in the Riverview area,” he said. “They’re omnivores (meaning they eat both plant and animal life). One study showed the content of their stomachs to be almost two-thirds plant life, with meat and fish only 20 percent.”

The photograph Jane took leads the experts to believe the lizard is a Tegu.

For several days, neighbors reported the animal darting between their houses and feeding on their garbage. Because Jane and her husband Robert live in a 55-and-up area of Summerfield where homeowner’s association covenants specify all dogs must be smaller than 40 pounds, they fear for the safety of pets left outdoors.

“Rumor has it that a man finally captured it but we don’t know for sure,” Jane said.

Even after coming close to several alligators while golfing and sighting them in nearby ponds during the 30 years since they moved to Florida from Wisconsin, this particular lizard still concerns them.


Jeanie Irwin of Summerfield has researched Tegu lizards extensively on the Internet and learned that unlike most lizards, which are herbivores and eat only plants, the Tegu poses a problem for pet owners because it is a meat eater and has been known to go after dogs and cats as well as mice and other mammals.
Another Summerfield resident, Jeanie Irwin, researched the dragon-like Tegu thoroughly on the Internet and found reports from the Southwest Florida Water Management District that Tegus (the formal name is Tupinamibis merianae) have become a problem not only in Hillsborough County but several other counties as well.

“There was another one here in Summerfield not long ago,” said Jeanie. “I think originally they were a pair.”

Jeanie wonders if someone in the area is breeding the Tegus because their skins sell for a very high price; some as high as $2,500.

Captain John West, also in the Tallahassee FFWCC office, says owning exotic pets (including nonnative lizards) without obtaining a permit is not against the law. Only if someone exhibits or sells them do they need a permit, which costs $50 a year no matter how many lizards someone owns.

“There are regulations on how they are kept and we do inspect once a year,” Captain West said. “Large lizards like the one in the photograph require large spaces, cages and access to pools of water.”

While it may not be illegal to own exotic reptiles as pets, people who are caught releasing them into the wild can be charged up to $1,000 in fines and spend a year in jail for doing so, Captain West said.



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