Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Releasing Captive Reptiles and Amphibians

©1997 Melissa Kaplan


I frequently receive mail and phone calls, and see posts in the various forums and email lists, from people who have a reptile or amphibian that they they don't want any more, or that they brought home with them from vacation in another part of the country, or that they rescued from a pet store, another individual, or a food market. Many of these people ask about, or tell of their intent to, release these animals into their backyards or on other private property, or in public parks or wilderness areas.

Releasing Long-Term Captives
Breeding for Release
The Plight of Exotics
Final Note


Releasing Long-term Captives: Why you can't do it.
It is illegal to release non-native wildlife into any area. Nonnative is any species that is not native to the area you are thinking of releasing it in. Many people do realize that there are many species of box turtles, for example. Just because there are box turtles where you live in Texas does not mean that they are the same species as the box turtle you brought back from your trip to Virginia.

It is illegal to release native wildlife without a permit. Even wildlife rehabilitators require special permits and licenses to operate.

It is morally unethical. Assuming you want it to live, giving it to a pet store for resale is probably not an option. The reason the California desert tortoises are under threat of extinction is because those populations not disturbed by habitat destruction are being decimated by a viral infection spread into the wild populations by sick former captives who were released into the wild to either live or die - the former owners didn't particularly care which, and had some foolish notion that if they were meant to get better, they would.

In addition, long term captives may be carrying organisms against which they have developed immunity but against which wild populations have not - thus a release such as you plan could be devastating to the native turtle populations. And, conversely, the wild populations may have immunity against organisms against which your foundling does not - again, a release could be lethal. Other animals may be affected as well, as many of the infecting organisms will happily inhabit many different types of hosts.

Releasing long term captives outside their normal range, even if it is in similar habitat, may also prove fatal as many of them fail to learn to feed, hide and generally survive. (One study of wild rattlesnakes resulted in most of the study group dying, despite the fact that the biologists released them into what they considered to be prime habitat for that species, an area which was devoid of any other rattlers.) Also, they have little natural defenses against predators which may be different than the ones in the locale in which they evolved.

The best thing to do is to contact your local herpetological society (or turtle and tortoise society, if applicable), and give the reptile to them. They will check them over to assure they are healthy, treating them if they are not. They will then be adopted out to people who will care for them properly.


Breeding For Release
I also get mail from people who want to start breeding a native (and, sometimes, nonnative!) species and release it in their local parks, yards, or wilderness areas. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, there are insurmountable problems associated with putting this into practice.

One of the biggest reasons is that referred to above: the species may not native to the intended release area. Another is that, if there are no salamanders, or box turtles, or rattlesnakes, or whatever it is you want to breed, there already, or are present in rapidly dwindling numbers, there is a reason why that is happening. Just putting more individuals out there is not likely to increase the population, just the number of animals dying or disappearing into poachers' or illegal collectors' bags.

When native species disappear from an area, there is a reason: the food supply that the local populations once depended upon have disappeared, either through other changes in the environment, pollutants or other reasons, mainly due to habitat destruction. Unless you identify the reasons for the change in native population numbers, and correct the causes for their decline, your released population will fare no better.

Even heavily researched, rigidly controlled breeding-for-release programs fail due to a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the animal's inability to adapt to the environment. Doing so without fully surveying the native population, recording burrows, food supplies, knowing the difference between male and female ranges, etc., too often results in released animals dying of stress, starvation, hyper- or hypothermia, or dehydration. Also, without full knowledge of the predator population, both natural and introduced, risks of overly high predation are also likely. These are all things that wildlife biologists have problems doing (due to time, money and manpower constraints) and such studies, when they are done, take years to complete and analyze the data...and even then, release programs can still fail.

Properly managed wildlife release programs must be done with great care, including the careful screening of the individuals slated for release, including selecting for age and sex. In addition, the individuals need to be tested for parasites and pathogens.

If it were as easy as many well-intentioned people think, we wouldn't have the number of endangered and threatened species we now have. Instead, researching species and potential release areas takes long years of work, fraught with frustrations, not the least of which is state and federal red-tape.

For more information on the problems associated with breeding for release programs, read wildlife biologist/herpetologist Rob Nelsen's article, Captive Breeding for Conservation.


Short-term Catch-and-Release
Some individuals like to catch a local herp, keep it for a day or two, then release it. This may be done so that the person, or his or her children, can see the species close up for a short time without actually depriving the wild of that individual.

Short-term catch-and-release should only be done with those species that it is legal to catch. Your state department of fish and game will have published lists of protected species. In California, you can find the list at the Department of Fish and Game's website or in the CDF&G Sport Fishing guide available at stores selling fishing licenses.

When you collect a short-term captive, be sure to strictly quarantine it from any other herps you may have, regardless of their species. Put it into a thoroughly cleaned and disinfected enclosure, and discard the bedding and disinfect all furnishings before using them for any other animal. For quarantine, cleaning and disinfecting procedures, please read my Cleaning and Disinfecting article.

If you take a reptile from the middle of the road, place it off the road on the side that the reptile was facing when you picked it up. If you know you won't be able to get back to the capture site, don't take the animal. If you are thinking to keep a wild-caught herp for the summer and release it again in late fall, please think again. Even if you release it right where you found it, it may be too late in the year for the reptile or amphibian to stock up on the foodstuffs it needs to get through the winter, or it may find that the burrow, cave or niche in which it spent the cooler, wetter months in previous years now occupied by someone else who is not willing to share. You summer catch may die before it can find new food sources and a safe place to wait out the winter. When you catch a short-term captive, do so only if you can release it where you found it. If you are on a camping trip four hours from home, don't take that lizard unless you plan on returning to that site in the next 24 to 48 hours to put the lizard back right where you found it.


The Plight of Exotics
Exotics, in this case, are species that are not native to your country. When these animals are no longer wanted, release into the wild is simply not an alternative, anywhere. There are no preserves for unwanted green iguanas, nor for unwanted Burmese pythons, or Nile monitors, as people often think there are. There are no zoos, wildlife educators, or other institutions waiting with open arms for the vast majority of the herps in the pet trade - they already have their fill of other people's cast off pets.

If you have an exotic that you can no longer keep, you are responsible for finding a proper home for it, or at least getting it to someone or a group who can do so. Do not release these animals into your yard, or park, or nearby wilderness area. Not only is this illegal, it is almost certainly a death sentence, especially for tropical, desert, or montane species release outside of similar habitats. If you cannot find a suitable home for your herp (and you need to understand that, regardless of what you spent buying the animal and all of its supplies, food, and veterinary care, you may still have to give it away, along with its enclosure and equipment), you will have to keep it until you can find someone qualified to care for it. In extreme cases, if there is no other alternative (and, again, release is not an alternative), veterinary euthanasia may be the only recourse.

The cold, hard, fact, here in 1997, is that more reptiles are being dumped than there are rescuers who can take them in and care for them until homes are found. Reptile rescues are generally working out of their own homes, out of their own pockets, or with what little fundraising they can manage. Animals who are very ill, or untamed, and thus have a reduced chance of being adopted out, may well be euthanized just to make room for the non-stop flood of incoming reptiles. If there is a chance you won't be able to take care of an animal for its entire life, do the reptile-and reptile rescuers-a favor and don't get it to begin with.


Final Note...
Sometimes, the greater lessons can be learned, not from the reptile or amphibian in hand, but from its absence. Finding out why a species is scarce in, or absent from, an area, and working to change those conditions, or at least to prevent further decline in the remaining populations, may be far more important than any amount of captive breeding you can do. By the same token, how many more desert, Texas, and gopher tortoises would grace our wildlands today if people had not so cavalierly released sick individuals? The wild populations would still be impacted by the habitat destruction, but how many more would still be alive in the remoter areas and preserves?

Whatever collecting and releasing you do, please do so carefully, with full knowledge of the legalities-and ethics-of your actions.

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