Cast-off animals on district lands

By Ed Garland

St. Johns River Water Management District land managers were conducting a prescribed burn at Seminole Ranch Conservation Area in Brevard County when a little visitor ambled over.

A district land manager pets a pot bellied pig

A district land manager pets a pot bellied pig that followed staff around at the district’s Seminole Ranch Conservation Area in Brevard County during a prescribed fire. The pig had been abandoned at the property, leaving it as prey for wild animals.

It was a black pig, weighing maybe 30 pounds. It was smaller than a Labrador Retriever but just as friendly.

“The pig was obviously someone’s pet,” says Pete Henn, a Land Management Program Manager who participated in the burn. “It hung out with us all day almost as if it wanted to help us with the burn. It was a charmer and loved to be petted.”

While it may sound like a heartwarming tale, the sad truth is that stray or abandoned animals are not an uncommon sight on district land. The agency owns or manages approximately 737,500 acres of land throughout its 18-county service area and virtually all district property is open to the public for activities that are compatible with conservation. On the flipside, this also means that there are plenty of remote areas where people dump unwanted dogs, cats, and other domesticated and farm animals.

Not only is the practice illegal, it can be a death sentence for an animal that isn’t rescued and taken to an appropriate shelter, Henn notes.

“Many of our lands are incorporated into Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and are open to hunting,” he says. “Any pigs on these WMAs are legal to hunt and therefore on the menu. So, think about this before you release your `Wilbur’ or `Piglet’ into the wild. Also, we do have volunteer hog trappers on most district lands whose duty it is to remove hogs, which destroy delicate ecosystems. The trapper won’t likely differentiate between a wild pig and a domesticated pig.”

In another incident, Henn recalls receiving a phone call from a concerned visitor who reported seeing a group of abandoned Flemish giant rabbits at Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area in Indian River County. This species of rabbit won’t survive the Florida heat without ample water and shade; they’re also extremely vulnerable to predators.

Henn and Land Manager Amy Copeland responded to the scene and found one rabbit already dead from the heat and another that had been killed by a wild animal.

“Luckily a rescuer was willing to take the rest for us, although one more died during the trip from Orange County to Merritt Island,” Henn says. “The thing is, people don’t have to release their pets. There is a network of rescuers for a multitude of animals, domestic and exotic, across Florida that will take these animals. Dogs and cats can be surrendered at a pet shelter, the Humane Society, or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”

Over the years, district land managers have reported seeing a veritable menagerie of animals ranging from stray dogs and bantam roosters to pot-bellied pigs and the occasional horse. Of course, cast-off exotic animals in Florida are another story altogether.

“An emu once took up residence in Bull Hammock at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area,” says Land Manager R.H. Davis. “The emu used to follow folks around when they were working out there. There was also a capybara that lived at Orange Creek Conservation Area. We used to occasionally see it sunning on the levee. I’m not sure what happened to it.”

Nonnative species can upset the balance in Florida’s natural ecosystems because they compete for food and shelter, and in many cases negatively impact native populations. Released wildlife may also spread diseases to native wildlife, nearby domestic animals, and to people as well.

Flemish giant rabbits under a cushion

Exotic pets often won’t survive when abandoned. For example, these Flemish giant rabbits were abandoned at the district’s Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area in Indian River County, where several died from the heat before found by visitors who reported the animals to the district.

FWC has an Exotic Pet Amnesty Program that accepts exotic pets to reduce nonnatives being released into the wild by pet owners who no longer wish to or cannot care for their pet.

Group of domesticated pigs

Staff found this group of domesticated pigs wandering around the district’s River Lakes Conservation Area (Brevard and Osceola counties) after they were abandoned at the conservation area.

“The goals of our Exotic Pet Amnesty Program are to reduce the number of nonnative species being released into the wild by pet owners who can no longer care for their pets or no longer wish to keep them and to foster responsible pet ownership though outreach and education at Exotic Pet Amnesty Day events,” says FWC Public Relations Specialist Jamie Rager. “We’ll accept nonnative species of reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates.” Domestic animals — such as cats, dogs, pigs and chickens — are not accepted by the Exotic Pet Amnesty Program but owners are urged to look into the resources outlined above.

Exotic Pet Amnesty Day events are held periodically at locations throughout the state. A schedule of upcoming events and more information about the program is available at MyFWC.com/PetAmnesty.

Rager recommends that those who can’t attend an Exotic Pet Amnesty Day event call FWC’s Exotic Species Hotline at 888-Ive-Got1 (483-4681) for assistance in finding an animal a new home.

“The FWC is also seeking experienced pet owners to become adopters,” Rager says. “If you are interested in welcoming a new exotic pet into your home, you can apply to become an adopter at MyFWC.com/PetAmnesty.”

In short, there are many resources available to assist people with responsibly and humanely moving pets to new homes without resorting to illegally abandoning these animals on district lands or elsewhere.

“Please don’t introduce your unwanted domestic or exotic pet into the Florida environment,” Henn says. “The animal may not survive but those that do can become a real problem.”