ORONO — University of Maine professor Ian Bricknell has hundreds of lizards and amphibians he uses for education and research at his home, many he considers pets and companions. But he worries about how many he will be able to keep once the state revises its list of exotic animals that can be legally kept in captivity.
As Bricknell sits in a UMaine conference room beside a fast-moving crested gecko, he smiles as the seven-inch lizard climbs up a visitor’s arm, just as it would a tree in the wild. Many of Bricknell’s hopes are tied to the tiny lizard because it may not stay on the state’s draft list of 184 species of amphibians and lizards.
Bricknell said there are 11 geckos on the state’s current list of permissible lizards but just four on the draft list. And he’s worried that the draft list prohibits the African clawed frog, which is widely used at UMaine and around the world in medical research.
This winter, as the state continues to review and rewrite the list of exotic pets that are permitted in Maine, Bricknell is among many who own amphibians or reptiles and worry they are being shut out of the process. A 10-person technical committee drafting the new list of exotic pets for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has just one amphibian and reptile owner. Members of the Maine Herpetological Society said there should be more.
“One of my major concerns is there are no scientists on the committee that have any significant experience with lower vertebrates,” Bricknell said. “I don’t think it’s fair to restrict people from what they can own as pets because the (people on the committee) don’t understand them. That’s a little problematic. People get a lot of enjoyment out of them.”
It’s unclear how many people in Maine own exotic pets. Currently, more than 100 species of mammals, amphibians, birds and reptiles are allowed without a permit, said Nate Webb, IFW’s special projects coordinator. Bricknell estimates there are thousands of amphibian and reptile owners in Maine. There are 1,097 followers of the Maine Herpetological Society on Facebook.
Last year the Maine Legislature charged IFW with reviewing the law pertaining to wildlife in captivity. The law has not been updated in more than a decade, and the Legislature wanted to “provide for a strong emphasis on helping to protect the integrity of the native species in Maine,” according to IFW.
So this winter the department’s newly formed 10-person task force is considering whether to ban hundreds of exotic pets. IFW manages the wildlife species allowed to be kept by the public because certain species, if released, can pose risks to the public and native wildlife.
Webb said the IFW committee will be careful as it considers species that could spread disease. He said non-native species can pose a serious risk to the environment, just as green crabs have along the coast of Maine. In New Hampshire, the wild hog is another example of an invasive species that became established and destroyed native habitat, he said.
“Across the world the impact of exotic animals is devastating. They can spread disease or escape and injure people,” Webb said. “The stakes are very, very high. There are a number of examples of devastating impacts on the economy in agriculture or forestry (in the case of) non-native insect pests. If there is some uncertainty as to the risk certain species might pose, we want to err on the side of caution and we don’t want to allow them into general possession.”
Bricknell, the founder and director of UMaine’s Aquaculture Research Institute, asked to sit on the committee but said IFW did not respond to his request.
Webb said the department worked to include all interested parties. Ultimately, he said, the department could only include a handful of people outside of the five state employees required. He said he plans to reach out to other experts but feels confident IFW made the right choice with its lone committee voice on amphibians and reptiles: Jeremy Bullock of Pittston.
“Jeremy is the vice president of the Maine Herpetological Society, has a broad communication network with people in the herp community, and is very knowledgeable about both the taxonomy and captive husbandry of reptiles and amphibians,” Webb said. “He has been reaching out to members of the Maine Herpetological Society to solicit input.”
Bullock considers himself a passionate hobbyist. He and his family have owned six species of snakes over the past 10 years. But he admits he’s no expert on reptiles and amphibians.
“I would have liked to see more people on the committee with more experience in herpetology,” he said. “There’s a difference of opinion on the committee (on)which animals are good for the general public. From our standpoint at the Herps society, IFW has been a little over conservative as far as what is problematic. I guess the concern for a lot of us is that the department is going to take such an overly conservative approach to this that they’re going to worry about stuff that shouldn’t be a concern.”
Maine state amphibian and reptile biologist Phillip deMaynadier, who is not on the committee, said the department will seek input outside the committee.
“(IFW) is aware of the significant interest in captive husbandry of reptiles and amphibians by some members of the public,” he said.
But Maine Herpetological Society members share Bricknell’s fears that IFW is whittling down the list of unrestricted exotic pets and not gathering enough information about amphibians and reptiles that are safe.
Society member Jason Perillo of Winthrop also asked to serve on the IFW technical committee but was turned down. His company makes reptile and amphibian containers for zoos across the country, and he’s worked with venomous snakes and housed more than 500 species. He said the state is shutting out the herpetological community from the exotic pet listing process.
“I can call the Los Angeles Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, the San Antonio Zoo and I know the curators,” Perillo said. “When I ask for their opinion and input, they give it to me. Wouldn’t it be useful to have someone with that knowledge to help guide your decisions? I do feel the IFW committee did go out of its way to pick the least experienced person of all of us.”
Kyle Halford of Hartland has several snakes and lizards. He’s seen his Cuban knight anole lizard charm a friend’s autistic daughter and believes reptiles enrich our understanding of nature. He said IFW is not listening to the herpetology community.
“They have shut out several experts in the state,” Halford said. “Jeremy is a great guy but he doesn’t have the knowledge on a zoological basis of what is important and what’s not important. He knows a lot but Ian Bricknell, who has written 12 books and developed laws on animals for England, is disregarded.”
The technical committee will complete its listing of exotic mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles by this spring, at which time it will hold a public hearing on the new lists, Webb said.
Members of the Maine Herpetological Society plan to make sure they’re heard.
“There will be a firestorm,” Halford said of the public hearing.