Unwanted nonnative pets ranging from shy hedgehogs to lumbering boa constrictors can be handed over with no questions asked this weekend at an amnesty event sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The program is offered only a few times a year in cities across the state. Saturday's event at Busch Gardens is co-sponsored by the city of Plant City. Exotic pets may be brought to the parking lot at the northeast corner of McKinley Drive and Bougainvillea Avenue, between Adventure Island and Busch Gardens, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The idea is to get unwanted, nonnative pets into homes of adoptive owners and off the streets and out of the woods behind the houses, where some species can infringe on the habitat of native animals.
The amnesty day allows owners of exotic pets who no longer want them to bring them in and hand them over. There are no questions asked and no fees or penalties imposed.
Nonnative reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, mammals and invertebrates are welcome. Domestic pets such as dogs, cats or ferrets will not be accepted.
Exotic-pet owners who don't wish to give up their pets but seek advice are also welcome. Wildlife experts will be there to dispense advice.
Commission biologists will try to get the handed-over creatures to homes of qualified adopters with proper permits, if needed, and the ability to properly care for the animals. Potential adopters have been recruited to come to the event and consider taking home a critter or two
Approved adopters must bring with them a commission letter of acceptance. Animals won't be handed to anyone without preapproval from the agency.
"We expect to get quite a few nonnative animals that day so we need to make sure we have safe homes for them," commission spokeswoman Jenny Tinnell said in a news release made public last month. "Many exotic species end up in the wild because owners have released them. Often, pet owners don't understand the difference between native and nonnative species or they don't realize the possible effects releasing a nonnative fish or animal can have.
"This isn't a free pet giveaway," Tinnell said. "We're looking for adopters with knowledge and expertise in caring for exotic pets - not people who have always wanted a pet and think this is an opportunity to try their hands at owning one without purchasing it."
The event also is aimed at increasing awareness of the nonnative species problem in Florida's wild. Biologists have noted more than 400 exotic species loose in the state, and more than 130 have reproducing populations. It is illegal to release an exotic animal in Florida.
At an amnesty day in Miami eight months ago, 500 people showed up and 100 animals were turned in, including 21 snakes, 22 lizards, 40 turtles and tortoises, seven birds, eight mammals and two fish.
Tinnell said Tuesday that a few hundred people are expected and that mostly reptiles are expected to be relinquished.
"We may even have a few primates," she said.
Shawna Everidge, spokeswoman for Plant City, said there will be more than just amnesty going on. Animal experts will be there along with veterinarians who will implant microchips into exotic animals.
The cost is $20 per microchip implantation, she said, but the first 15 will be free.