Just before 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday, a dozen people lined up beneath a yellow tent at Gatorland carrying containers with all kinds of creatures.
Pets that had grown too big, or too hard to handle. Animals they weren't supposed to have because they aren't native to Florida.
A toothy, 2-foot pacu fish named "Little Squid" swam in a Styrofoam cooler. A red-eared slider turtle as big as a dinner plate crawled around a clear Tupperware bowl. Inside an old pillowcase, a Columbian red-tailed boa thrashed.
"You get these cute little animals and then they grow huge, make a mess and cause all kinds of trouble," said Tim Williams, who calls himself Gatorland's Dean of Gator Wrestling. "You can't just turn them loose. So we're here to take them in."
For four hours, Williams and a dozen other workers hosted "Pet Amnesty Day" in Gatorland's parking lot. Anyone could turn in exotic animals, no questions asked. A veterinarian was on hand to examine the pets. That afternoon, representatives from zoos and reptile rescue groups and people with permits to own snakes arrived to adopt the exotic animals. For free.
Most of the people seemed relieved to give up their pets. A grandmother handing over two elderly, obese sugar gliders said her daughter-in-law left the little marsupials behind 11 years ago and she just couldn't clean the cages anymore — or afford all the PediaSure to feed them. A mother was abandoning an angry green iguana because it bites.
But outside the tent, at the edge of the parking lot, a woman stood surrounded by her husband and three children, cradling a sand-colored bearded dragon. She kept shaking her head. She wasn't ready to get in that line. Not yet. She stroked the reptile's spiky head, tears trickling beneath her sunglasses.
• • •
In Florida, it is illegal to release a nonnative species into the wild. Our warm weather and abundant water make it possible for all kinds of exotic animals to thrive here. Even ones that don't belong, that mix with native species and mess up the gene pool.
Despite the law, more than 400 nonnative species have been observed in the wild, and more than 130 have reproducing populations.
"Letting those animals loose would have an extremely negative effect on our environment," said Liz Barraco of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which sponsored the Gatorland event. "We would much rather have people turn them in to us so that we can find someone who knows how to take care of them."
The state started pet amnesty days in 2006, holding events at parks from Jacksonville to Miami. Last year, owners turned in more than 200 exotic animals. "And we only put down one," Barraco said. "It was too sick to be adopted."
• • •
People flocked to Gatorland from across Central Florida, from St. Cloud and Deltona, from Clermont and Lake County. By noon, owners had signed over 27 creatures. Cages and cartons filled the long tables under the tent. Now there were three fish tanks — each with an enormous pacu, a freshwater fish with humanlike teeth.
A gopher tortoise with calloused toes cowered in a cardboard box. An albino Burmese python, 15 feet long, 150 pounds, fought against five workers trying to wedge it into a plastic kennel. In a cage on the floor, a one-eyed cockatoo cried like a baby.
The woman with the bearded dragon walked slowly toward the registration table, the reptile still clinging to her T-shirt. "I've had him since he was a baby," she told the state wildlife worker. "He could fit in the palm of my hand."
While she filled out the paperwork, she kept looking down at her "beardie," who was looking up at her. "He was an anniversary present. My husband bought him for me at the pet store," she said. "His name is Gator."
Rachael Johnson lives in Minneola, near Clermont, with her husband, three kids under 13, a dog, two cats, two snakes and a hamster. That morning, she and her husband had loaded the kids into the car and driven a half-hour to Orlando, with Gator perched in her lap.
"He likes lettuce and big worms. One time he tried blueberries. He doesn't like loud noise. Or to be ignored," she said. "He gives kisses. He bites at my lip." She held the reptile to her face, and it bit her goodbye.
"He lived in our extra bedroom, but he loved sleeping with me," she said. Who sleeps with a bearded dragon? "My husband didn't like it, but Gator loved it. He'd lie flat right beside me on my pillow. In the morning, he blew air in my face to wake me up.
"He's extremely moody," she said. "He can turn black at the drop of a hat. That's why they call them bearded dragons. When he gets upset, his neck puffs out and turns black."
As the wildlife worker entered Gator's history into a laptop, Johnson petted the reptile she had shared a bed with for two years. "It's not fair," she said softly. "He doesn't deserve this."
She has a new job, she said, in merchandising at Disney World. She is away most of the day, busy with her kids and dog and cats, dinner and homework every night. She has been ignoring her beardie. "He was lonely. I hardly ever got him out except to sleep," she said. "He deserves better than that."
She looked down at Gator. He stared up at her. For a second, it seemed the reptile was smiling. Johnson began to sob. She peeled his feet from her shirt, kissed his flat face, then thrust him toward the worker from Gatorland. "I hope you find him a good home," she said. Then she took off her sunglasses to wipe her eyes.
Her husband draped his arm around her shoulders and led her into the parking lot. After a few steps she stopped and stood there, shaking. Her children came up and clung to her waist.
• • •
Inside the tent, the vet examined Gator and a worker carried him to a small cage. The worker, Katy Strobl, oversees animal care at Gatorland. She rubbed the bearded dragon's chin and laughed when Gator cocked his head to look her in the eye. He seemed so responsive, so relaxed. He let her look under his tail and feel his feet.
"He's a beauty," Strobl told the vet. "And he seems so comfortable with people, with total strangers."
She eased Gator into a glass-front cage and shut the lid. Then she ran out to the parking lot, where Johnson was still shaking. "We're going to keep him," Strobl said. "We're going to make a home for him right here at Gatorland, put him in our outreach program for school field trips. Kids will be fussing over him every day. And he'll be here whenever you want to visit."
Johnson looked at the worker. "Oh, I would love that!" she cried. Another worker walked up and handed her five passes to the park.
In the back of the tent, inside the glass-front cage, Gator paced, faster and faster. He puffed out his neck. His beard turned black.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.