When you think of abandoned/stray animals, animals being released on the end of dirt roads to fend for themselves, what do you imagine? $5 says you’re picturing a dog or cat. And that’s very likely the answer! However, there is a significant problem with people releasing small pets, exotics, livestock, and fish as well.
Pictured here is Samuel, a beardie we had surrendered a number of years ago. What made Samuel’s case unique is that he was found trucking down the middle of a rural road. The person who caught him thought he was a native lizard and brought him in to my workplace asking for advice on how to keep him as a pet because they’d never seen such a cool lizard before. Once reptile care was explained to them, they didn’t want him, but at least learned he shouldn’t be set back loose, so we took him in (and he has since been adopted).
I have similarly taken in released or escaped (thought we ALWAYS check lost/found when we take in a stray anything, and none of these had anyone looking) iguanas, non-native turtles and tortoises, rabbits, pigs, parakeets, chickens, and more. Heck, if I had the means, I’d have come home with an abandoned horse tied to a post on a rural road.
Releasing dogs and cats is bad enough. They’re domesticated species and often succumb to disease, predation, injury, starvation, etc., though in some cases do establish feral populations that are injurious to wildlife. Releasing exotics tends to have one of two outcomes: a swift death or, given appropriate climate conditions and multiple individuals, the establishment of invasive populations that threaten native wildlife. Florida is obviously the textbook example, but populations of non-native animals released intentionally or accidentally by individuals or industries are present in virtually every state and indeed most countries.
So what do you do if you can’t keep your fish, or rabbit, or iguana? Well, for one, never release it into the wild. Many people romanticize “the wild” as a wonderful taste of freedom after a life of captivity even if they acknowledge that the animal will likely not survive. In reality, “the wild” tends to be a terrifying experience for captive bred or domesticated animals, and their end often comes after tremendous suffering. Even if your animal is well suited for the environment it’s being released into, doing so is almost definitely illegal and potentially harmful to native wildlife.
Instead, try to seek either a) a qualified new home or b) a rescue organization. There are rescues for virtually every animal under the sun, and for every person who doesn’t want x species, there’s someone else desperate to own one. You should always vet both new homes and rescues to make sure you are surrendering the animal responsibly; a basic verbal interview or questionnaire should make clear if the home or rescue is qualified. And honestly, if you can’t find anything and need to surrender your pet to animal control? They still have a better shot, and if they do wind up being euthanized, it is certainly a favorable death to starvation, disease, predators, exposure, etc.
Remember: whenever you obtain an animal, you are entering an unspoken contract to be responsible for that animal’s wellbeing, from start to finish, be that finish with you or someone else. You break that contract when you leave an animal’s fate to chance by releasing it.