The dumping of exotic pets in Sarnia cruel and illegal

An osprey looks down as it flies off with an orange koi snatched from Lake Chipican in Canatara Park. Koi are a carp-like, non-native hobby fish pet owners are dumping in the pond in surprising numbers. Ronny D’Haene Photo

Cathy Dobson

When a Good Samaritan found a large red-eared slider in Canatara Park this summer he did the right thing.

Recognizing the turtle was non-native, he took it to the local Humane Society.

Red-eared sliders were once commonly sold in pet stores and remain among the world’s 100 most invasive species.

Dozens have been reported in and around Lake Chipican in Canatara Park in recent years, most dumped by ill-informed owners who didn’t realized raising a pet turtle is a serious commitment.

“It creates havoc in our ecosystem,” said Ryan Sparks, an animal cruelty investigator with the local Humane Society.

Non-native pets released in the park compete with native species for food and shelter and often carry deadly diseases. What’s more, it’s cruel to the pet itself because most will freeze to death over the winter.

That was the case with a South American tortoise Sarnia wildlife photographer Ronny D’Haene found on the edge of Lake Chipican last week.

This tortoise, native to South America, was found wandering on the shoreline of Lake Chipican last week.
Ronny D’Haene Photo

“I went, ‘Whoa, what are you?’ The bumps on its back were unlike anything I’d seen before,” he said. “I thought it might be a tortoise but we don’t have any of those in Ontario.”

D’Haene shared photos of the 16-inch (40-centimetre) reptile online and a friend identified it as a red-footed tortoise. Native to South America, red-footed tortoises live in a climate where it rarely gets below 20°C (68°F).

“I didn’t want it to die in the cold,” said D’Haene, who was upset someone had simply dumped it there. He went back to Lake Chipican but couldn’t find it.

However, he informed a city worker who raises turtles herself, and she located the tortoise and is now caring for it.

“In 24 hours I went from feeling glad, to sad, to glad again,” D’Haene said.

And pet turtles aren’t the only problem. Other exotic animals sighted in and around the park include at least one parrot, iguanas and dozens of koi, a carp-like Asian fish raised in aquariums and ponds.

The number of exotics pets released locally is astonishing, said Sparks, who has worked in Sarnia-Lambton and Chatham-Kent.

“Not a lot of people keep poisonous snakes, but boa constrictors and ball pythons are very common,” Sparks said.

Big snakes will prey on cats, rabbits and even small dogs when turned loose by careless owners, or those who think they’re doing their pet a favour.

And snakes on the loose get into the darnedest places. Sparks was once called to a house in Dresden where one had curled up under the furnace.

“It was a Florida kingsnake, not poisonous, but very difficult to rescue and not friendly,” Sparks said. “Let’s just say it was completely feral and did not want to be captured.”

He managed to round up the large snake and take it to a reptile rehab centre in Welland, Ont.

Another time, he rescued 21 ball pythons left in a tote beside a dumpster in Tilbury, Ont.

“That was a case that was never resolved,” said Sparks, who is a reptile enthusiast himself and ultimately kept two of them.

“People need to know that not providing a standard of care for these reptiles is illegal. It’s illegal to abandon them with no food or water,” he said. “It’s cruel.

“I hope people start realizing you can’t take the wild out of wildlife. Do not take them as pets if you aren’t committed to their care.”

A pet turtle can outlive its owner and grow to the size of a dinner plate, Sparks noted.

When an exotic pet becomes too big to keep, releasing it outdoors is not the answer, he said.

“Take it to the Humane Society or find a home where they know what they are doing.”

In Sarnia, the municipality has banned numerous exotic animals. The list includes alligators, anaconda, Burmese pythons, boa constrictors, bobcats, caiman, cougars, crocodiles, Indian pythons, jaguars, leopards, lions, lynx, ocelots, reticulated pythons, rock pythons, tigers, and venomous snakes of any kind.