The allure and danger of exotic illegal animals

Bearded dragon

It’s just an exotic pet to some, but illegal animals can cause all types of problems.

A lizard known as a bearded dragon was captured under a house in Kailua Wednesday night.

State officials believe it had been somebody’s pet, and say that type of lizard is quite popular in the pet industry.

Exotic pets have become popular nationwide and even at the risk of some hefty fines, people keep bringing them into the islands.

Inspectors at the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch say the bearded dragon is one of the more common lizards being turned in.

The lizard caught Wednesday was 16 inches long, but bearded dragons can grow up to two feet long. They eat plants and insects, and once they get bigger, they also have an appetite for smaller animals.

“So we’re concerned about its effects to Hawaii’s agriculture and farm environment and also it could be a public safety type of issue,” said Glenn Sakamoto, Plant Quarantine Inspector with the State Department of Agriculture.

The bearded dragon gets its name because it can puff out its lower jaw, making it look like a beard. Some people are attracted to its dinosaur-like appearance.

This type of lizard has been so popular in the pet industry that five other ones have been turned in at the Plant Quarantine Branch.

Sakamoto says people are able to bring such illegal animals in by sneaking them in their carry-on luggage or by mailing them.

The fine for selling or transporting is $50,000 to $200,000 and up to three years in jail. For possession, it’s $5,000 to $20,000.

“The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is very concerned about the effects to our environment, our agriculture and also our public health and safety, so we encourage people to turn these types of animals to our office or to the zoo,” Sakamoto said.

It’s not just state officials who are concerned. “I’ve seen time and time again that this type of illegal introduction of things or illegal holding of pets that get loose cause problems,” Earl Campbell, Assistant Field Supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Campbell says lizards can severely damage our ecosystem and could potentially have a similar effect as brown tree snakes in Guam, which decimated the bird population.

“The more of these things that you get, the more problems they’re gonna cause for our ecosystems. It’s basically fuel for a larger fire,” Campbell said.

There is no fine if you voluntarily turn in illegal animals. As to what happens to the bearded dragon and other illegal animals, the state works with the zoo to try and find a home for them.

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