WILD THINGS: Rare, exotic animals could be living in your Tampa Bay neighborhood

8 On Your Side

It truly is a jungle out there!

You may be surprised to know there are exotic and sometimes dangerous animals that could be living just down the street from you.

In Seminole, one could drive through this neighborhood and not notice anything different. It’s your standard middle-class neighborhood, filled with family homes, an apartment complex, and is adjacent to an elementary school.

But if you go to Vernon Yates’ house at the end of the block and discover exactly who lives there. 

It’s not your average home. You can immediately tell when you spot the pet in the front yard. No, its not a dog. It’s a baboon. 

And out by the pool, you’ll spot Vernon Yates’ pet alligator. Yates’ five ex-wives weren’t big fans of him.

“Every woman that I know right now keeps screaming at me to get rid of him and I ain’t doin it. He stays, they can leave,” said Yates.

Yates runs the non-profit Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation out of his home. His 3-acre property is more like a zoo, filled with some of the most exotic and in some cases, dangerous animals that you’ll find anywhere.

“I still look at everything here, whether it be the tigers, the bears, or whatever as they’re my pets,” said Yates. “Most of the stuff in here has been someone’s pet at one time or another.” 

Under Florida law, you’d be surprised at the rare, exotic and unique animals that can legally live near you. 

“You get what you put into an animal. If you take an animal and lock it up in a cage and throw it food, you will always have a caged animal,” explained Yates. “If you spend time with them, you have a different animal.”

Let’s break it down for you.

In Florida, you need permits to own most exotic or non-native animals. They’re broken up into three classes.

Class I animals pose a significant danger to the public. 

“We do not allow anyone to have a Class I captive wildlife for personal use. It has to be educational use, think of universities and zoos. These are people with lots of experience, lots of training and they’re going to have the proper permits,” explained FWC Law Enforcement Officer Ashley Tyre.

According to FWC: Class I wildlife is prohibited from personal possession unless the animal was possessed on or before August 1, 1980; or on or before August 27, 2009 for cougars, panthers or cheetahs.

Class I species include:

•    Baboons (genus Papaio)
•    Bears (family Ursidae)
•    Black caimans (Melanosuchus niger)
•    Cape buffalos (Syncerus caffer caffer)
•    Cheetahs (Acinonyx jabatus)
•    Chimpanzees (genus Pan)
•    Cougars, panthers (Puma concolor)
•    Crocodiles (except dwarf and Congo) (family Crocodylidae)
•    Drills and mandrills (genus Mandrillus)
•    Elephants (family Elephantidae)
•    Gavials (family Gavialidae)
•    Gelada baboons (genus Theropithecus)
•    Gibbons and Siamangs (family Hylobatidae)
•    Gorillas (genus Gorilla)
•    Hippopotamuses (family Hippopotamidae)
•    Hyenas and Aardwolf (family Hyaenidae)
•    Jaguars (Panthera onca)
•    Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis)
•    Leopards (Panthera pardus)
•    Lions (Panthera leo)
•    Orangutans (genus Pongo)
•    Rhinoceros (family Rhinocerotidae)
•    Snow leopards (Panthera uncia)
•    Tigers (Panthera tigris)

It is possible though to find Class II animals in your area. However, these don’t come easy. You need 1,000 hours of training and letters of recommendation. You must have secure housing that is up to date and follows code. Also you’re subject to periodic checks by FWC.

“We do encourage people  to do their homework up front, know what you’re getting into,” said FWC spokeswoman Melody Kilborn.

Class II species include:

•    African golden cats (Profelis aurata)
•    African hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus)
•    Alligators, caimans (family Alligatoridae)
•    American badgers (Taxides taxus)
•    Binturongs (Arctictis binturong)
•    Bobcats (Lynx rufus)
•    Caracals (Caracal caracal)
•    Cassowary (Casuarius spp.)
•    Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa)
•    Douc langurs (genus Pygathrix)
•    Dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis)
•    European and Canadian lynx (Lynx lynx)
•    Fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrina)
•    Giraffe and Okapi (family Giraffidae)
•    Guenons (genus Ceropithecus)
•    Guereza monkeys (genus Colobus)
•    Honey badgers (Mellivora capensis)
•    Howler monkeys (genus Alouatta)
•    Idris (genus Indri)
•    Indian dholes (Cuon alpinus)
•    Langurs (genus Presbytis)
•    Macaques and Celebes black apes (genus Macaca)
•    Mangabeys (genus Cercocebus)
•    Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis)
•    Old World badgers (Meles meles)
•    Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
•    Patas monkeys (genus Erythrocebus)
•    Proboscis monkeys (genus Nasalis)
•    Sakis (genus Chiropotes and Pithecea)
•    Servals (Leptailurus serval)
•    Snub-nosed langurs (genus Phinopithecus)
•    Tapir (family Tapiridae)
•    Temminck’s golden cats (Profelis temmincki)
•    Uakaris (genus Cacajao)
•    Vervet, Grivet or Green monkeys (genus Chlorocebus)
•    Wild cattle; forest, woodland and aridland antelope; and similar species of *non-native hoofstock (family Bovidae)
•    Wolverines (Gulo gulo)
•    Wolves, coyotes, jackals (family Canidae)

*Such non-native hoofstock to include: Forest buffalo, Banteng, Anoa, Waterbuck, Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Eland, Kudu, Nilgai, Bongo, lechwe, Roan and Sable antelope, Sitatunga, Bontebok, Blesbok, Topi, Kob, Addax, Oryx, Gemsbok, and other wild species of the family Bovidae which are of similar size, habits and nature.

Note: Hybrids resulting from the cross between wildlife and domestic animal, which are substantially similar in size, characteristics and behavior so as to be indistinguishable from the wild animal shall be regulated as wildlife at the higher and more restricted class of the wild parent are limited to poultry, hamsters, guinea pigs, domestic rats and mice, or chameleons (Anolis) only do not need a permit.

According to FWC, there is no formal list of Class III species.

Any non-domesticated wildlife species that do not appear on the list of Class I or Class II wildlife are considered Class III wildlife. This includes, but is not limited to, species such as parrots, finches, skunks, foxes, geckos, snakes, and frogs.

Florida residents 16 years of age and older may apply for permit to possess, exhibit or sell Class III wildlife. Class III animals include snakes, frogs and parrots. The requirements are not as stringent, but in many cases you’ll still need a permit.

FWC has a list for prohibited animals in Florida.

The agency stresses the average person cannot own a venomous animal.

“These are usually going to be educational type permits,” said Tyre.

But many of these exotics can still pose a danger. That’s why it’s vital that these animals do not escape.

“They could be facing misdemeanor charges, that’s a criminal charge,” said Tyre.

Experts point out many don’t realize the amount of responsibility it takes to own an exotic pet.

 “A lot of people decide they want monkeys because they’re cute. But monkeys are a huge responsibility and their behavior can change,” said Tyre.

Some exotic pets, like Asian water monitors, are small and cute when they are young. But they can grow to become seven-feet long!

Former pets are already causing problems. FWC says that’s why pythons have proliferated in the Everglades, and why lionfish are threatening our waters.

Another species that has caused issues is the Red-eared slider. For decades, these turtles have been sold in dime stores and pet shops throughout the United States.

FWC says many pet owners fail to realize how large these turtles can get. Over the years, many have been released in the wild. Officials say these turtles pose a significant threat with the Florida redbelly turtle.

Yates is prepared for the long haul and he urges people to plan ahead before buying an exotic pet.

“To me, making a commitment to an animal like that or any animal really is as much of a commitment if not more than getting married,” explained Yates.

FWC provides a map where you can find Captive Wildlife Permits in your area. There is also a database showing you where invasive species have been reported near you.

WEB EXTRA VIDEO: Expert advice on owning an exotic pet.

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