News 6 investigates exotic pet escapes from Florida homes

More than 260 escapes over past decade

ORLANDO, Fla. – When a venomous king cobra slithered away from its owner's home last summer, putting neighbors and students of a nearby elementary school in fear for more than a month, state wildlife officers already had plenty of experience tracking down runaway critters.

[WEB EXTRA: Interactive map shows escaped wildlife reported to FWC]

More than 260 exotic snakes, monkeys, lions, tigers, bears and other captive animals have escaped in Florida over the past decade, a News 6 investigation has revealed. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission receives an average of two calls every month reporting animals that have slipped out of their enclosures at zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and private homes.

[RELATED: FWC king cobra escape report]

A News 6 review of FWC records shows very few incidents of escaped wildlife are handled exactly alike.  Each situation is different, with varying outcomes for the animals and their owners.

“FWC’s primary focus is on public safety and the safety and well-being of the animals that are housed in these permitted facilities,” said agency spokesman Rob Klepper.

Primates make up the largest number of escaped animals reported to the state.  More than 100 lemurs, monkeys, orangutans and a chimpanzee have gotten out of their enclosures or run away from their owners since 2006, reports show.

[BEHIND THE INVESTIGATION: News 6 reporter Mike DeForest details his story]

More than half of those primate escapes coincidentally occurred in 2008:

• A spider monkey left alone in a guest room at the LaQuinta Inn near Orlando International Airport removed its leash that was tied to the bed, opened the door, and roamed the hotel hallway.  It was captured when its owner, who was visiting from South Carolina, returned from dinner.
• People driving near the intersection of Conroy Rd. and Kirkman Rd. in Orlando were surprised to see county workers trying to capture a macaque monkey that had escaped from a window of a nearby apartment.
• An orangutan climbed out of a newly-built enclosure at Tampa’s Busch Gardens, prompting theme park officials to evacuate visitors from the area until it was recaptured.
• Fifteen patas monkeys escaped from an island at Lakeland’s Safari Wilderness Ranch by swimming across a moat. Ten monkeys were immediately caught.
• When vandals opened the cages at a Miami facility that supplies primates for research, at least 30 macaque monkeys escaped.  Only about half were immediately recaptured.  An animal rights group anonymously claimed responsibility for the crime, which was investigated by the FBI.

Although primates lead the state in reported escapes, another creature follows closely behind: exotic snakes, including one particularly worrisome species.

Since 2006, FWC has investigated at least 45 snake escapes. 

Of those, 19 involved Burmese pythons, the single-most reported escaped species over the past decade.

• In June 2015, workers discovered a nearly 9-foot Burmese python slithering around their construction site on US 192 in Kissimmee. No owner was identified.
• An 11-foot Burmese python with no identifiable owner was captured at an apartment complex on Walden Circle in Orlando in 2009.
• A 14-foot albino Burmese python became the largest snake to escape over the past decade when it got out of its cage on Summerland Key in 2007.  The python was later found in a nearby bank parking lot.

The most horrific escape of a Burmese python occurred in July 2009, when 2-year-old Shaiunna Hare was strangled to death in her Sumter County home by a 9-foot snake belonging to her mother’s boyfriend.  According to investigators, the malnourished python that asphyxiated and bit the sleeping child had escaped from a terrarium covered with only a quilt. Jason Darnell and the child’s mother, Jaren Hare, are now serving 12 years in state prison for aggravated manslaughter. 

Besides the danger to small children and pets, FWC officials are also concerned about the impact Burmese pythons will have on Florida’s environment. The agency believes escaped or intentionally released pythons have contributed to the invasive snake’s explosive population in South Florida which could decimate native animal species there.  

In some snake escapes, the owners have reported the missing reptiles, such as when a man in Tequesta notified police that his 7-foot red-tailed boa constrictor had escaped from the screened-in front porch he used as the snake’s cage.  After police located the snake a short time later and returned it to the owner, FWC issued him a citation for using an insufficient cage.

In other situations, exotic snakes are found slithering in front of homes and businesses.  In 2009, bystanders noticed a 5-foot boa constrictor near the intersection of Marsh Rd. and Carter Rd. in DeLand. The snake’s owner was never identified.

In December 2015, airboat passengers on the St. Johns River spotted a 9-foot green anaconda lying under the State Road 50 bridge near Christmas.  When the invasive snake attempted to escape into the water, an FWC officer shot and killed it. State wildlife officials believe the snake may have been someone’s illegally-owned pet.

Six years earlier, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies found an even bigger, 11-foot green anaconda hiding in a storm drain at the East Lake Fish Camp in Kissimmee. After wildlife officials were unable to identify the owner, the snake was taken to the nearby Reptile World Serpentarium.

Although most escaped snakes reported to FWC have been non-venomous, four cobras have gotten loose, including the one that slipped away from Michael Kennedy’s Orlando home in September 2015.

According to FWC’s escape report, a large tree limb that broke off during a storm damaged the roof of Kennedy’s garage, causing rain water to leak inside.  The dripping water weakened the manufactured wood on the cobra’s cage, allowing it to push open a screen and slither out.

The king cobra was captured more than a month later when a neighbor heard a hissing sound in her garage coming from behind her clothes dryer.

FWC issued Kennedy a $366 fine for failing to report the cobra’s escape until the day after he discovered the 8-foot snake was missing. The agency is also seeking to revoke Kennedy’s permit to possess venomous reptiles, a move Kennedy is challenging. 

Meanwhile, the state attorney has charged Kennedy with maintaining the cobra “in a manner and condition which resulted in escape from its enclosure, constituting a threat to public safety." Kennedy’s attorney is asking a judge to dismiss the misdemeanor charges, claiming the law is vague.

In 2001, FWC cited Kennedy after different cobra escaped from his previous home in Orlando’s College Park.  A neighbor who found the snake in his garage shot and killed it.

Despite concerns about Kennedy’s repeated cobra escapes, very few exotic pet owners have experienced multiple escapes, News 6 has found.

Eight individuals have had their exotic pets get loose twice, according to FWC reports.  Only three owners have been the subject of triple escapes. 

No animal has been reported escaped more than three times, records from 2006-2015 show.

The exotic pet with the distinction of being Florida’s most frequent escape artist is Zeke, a macaque monkey that lives in Sanford.  Zeke has escaped from his owner’s house on Sugar Maple Court three times, more than any other single animal reported to the state.

Zeke first got loose in February 2012 when the monkey weakened the wires on his enclosure and slipped outside. After he was captured, FWC cited Zeke’s owner for the animal’s escape. Jeff Jacques pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge and was ordered to pay $263 in court costs. 

Seven months later, Zeke broke out again. Originally, Jacques told wildlife officials he would hand over his pet to a primate sanctuary. However, Jacques now claims he was unable to find a facility that he felt would properly care for Zeke, so he kept the monkey.

In September 2015, Zeke made his third getaway. Video captured by witnesses shows the macaque climbing on a road sign and sitting on top of a Sanford police car.

Jacques told News 6 Zeke’s latest escaped was caused by the monkey hitting the side of the cage every time his dog walked by. The movement slowly caused the enclosure to come apart, Jacques claimed.

"I didn't realize he was moving the bolts when he bumped the cage,” said Jacques, who has now reinforced Zeke’s cage with eight padlocks. "That was one of those freak things. FWC told me the same thing."

FWC did not cite Jacques for Zeke's third escape.

Florida is home to many zoos, roadside animal attractions and wildlife sanctuaries. However, only a small number of those facilities have reported multiple escapes.

In 2010, a gibbon escaped from an improperly locked cage at Miami’s Jungle Island attraction, FWC records show. The primate then antagonized a Bengal tiger in a nearby enclosure, prompting the 500-pound cat to jump over the 12’ high fence.

“"We hear all the trainers say ‘Run!  Run!’," a frightened visitor told a Miami TV station. "The tiger brushed up against a pregnant lady and was within 10 feet of us. It was running through the park chasing the monkey."

After trainers lured the tiger into a transport crate with chicken, FWC issued two misdemeanor citations to the park’s president.

A pair of colobus monkeys escaped from an enclosure along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2008 when high winds caused a tree branch to wear a hole in the mesh.  The following year a baby monkey slipped through a small opening in the enclosure.  In both incidents the monkeys were quickly captured and the public was never in danger, according to FWC reports.  The agency took no action against the theme park.

A 6-foot Nile Monitor, a type of non-native lizard that is now outlawed in Florida, escaped from the former Silver Springs theme park twice over a period of four months in 2007.  Both times the lizard was captured in the surrounding community.  FWC issued written warnings each time.

The site of the most reported animal escapes in Florida is the Jacksonville Zoo, records show.  From 2006-2010, the zoo alerted FWC to the escapes of nine animals:

• As a 600 lb. alligator tried to climb a fence in 2006, the reptile’s weight caused a gate latch to open. The alligator escaped into a non-public service area surrounded by a fence. FWC found no violations.
• An elephant walked out of a gate left open by a trainer in 2007 and onto a non-public access road. FWC issued a verbal warning.
• In 2008, a bobcat slipped out of its enclosure through an open access door.  The public was moved to a safe area and was not exposed to the bobcat as zoo personnel captured it.  FWC issued a citation to the zookeeper.
• A landscaper inadvertently cut a hole in a mesh enclosure with a hedge trimmer in 2009, allowing a jaguar to temporarily enter a public area. An FWC report indicated charges were pending.
• The following year, a jaguar got loose from its enclosure but remained within the animal’s off-limits housing facility.  FWC found no violations.
• Zoo visitors watched as a colobus monkey escaped from its enclosure in 2010 and climb onto the roof of the ape house.  Employees lured it into another exhibit area and captured it about 80 minutes later.  FWC found no violations.
• That same year, zookeepers arriving in the morning discovered a rhino had wandered out of a barn door that had been left open overnight and into a non-public area.  FWC issued a written warning.
• A vulture and a lorikeet flew away in 2010. Both birds were eventually recaptured, and FWC found no violations.

“Fortunately the incidents were infrequent, brief, behind-the-scenes, and were all resolved without injury to the animals, guests or zoo staff,” Jacksonville Zoo spokesman Lucas Meers told News 6.

“Members of our animal and safety teams are knowledgeable, experienced, and professional. We do our best to be well-prepared through ongoing training, inspections and drills,” said Meers. “We have always been, and will always be, thorough and forthcoming in our reports and communication with regulatory agencies.”

FWC officials appear to evaluate each escape on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the owner should be sanctioned.

When a pair of wolves escaped from a wolf sanctuary in the Florida Panhandle in 2014, the agency concluded there were few things the owner could have done to prevent the animals from getting loose.  A severe storm and flash flooding damaged the chain-link enclosures, according to reports.

But when a lion dug underneath its enclosure that same year and escaped from a Springhill wildlife facility, FWC believed the owner was to blame.

“(The owner) stated that she was aware that the lion would dig,” an FWC investigator wrote after the lion was recaptured within the fenced-in facility. "This action of negligence resulted in the animal escaping from its primary enclosure.”

FWC cited the owner for the lion’s escape.  However, nine months later the Pasco County State Attorney’s Office dropped all criminal charges.  FWC allowed the owner to keep her captive wildlife permits.

In 2009, a worker associated with the Jungle Adventures animal attraction on State Road 50 in Christmas transported a pregnant cougar to her home in Kissimmee.  According to wildlife officials, the large cat broke off its leash and ran into the woods behind the house.  The cougar returned the next morning.

According to FWC, the worker did not have the proper permits to possess captive wildlife at her home.  A judge later found the Kissimmee woman guilty of a misdemeanor and ordered her to pay a $483 fine, court records show.

“Violation of captive wildlife rules can range from non-criminal infractions to felonies,” said FWC spokesman Klepper. “Fine amounts and court fees are determined by the county court in which the violation occurred.”

In hopes of preventing animal escapes, FWC routinely inspects the homes and businesses of Floridians possessing captive wildlife permits, which are required for many types of exotic and non-domesticated animals.   Inspectors make sure cages and enclosures are secure, ensure owners of certain animals have a written disaster plan, and check on the animals' welfare.

Animals that FWC believes could pose a significant danger to people, such as bears, gorillas, rhinos and tigers, require inspections twice a year.  Venomous reptiles and animals such as alligators, bobcats, giraffes, macaques and servals are inspected by FWC once a year.  Owners of spider and capuchin monkeys are visited by a state inspector every two years.

During those routine inspections, FWC occasionally discovers animals are missing. Permitted owners can be cited for failing to report escapes.

If FWC is unable to identify an escaped animal's owner, or if the state discovers an unpermitted animal is being illegally kept, the animal may be taken to a nearby wildlife sanctuary or rescue organization.

Fallin' Pines Critter Rescue in Christmas is home to hundreds of escaped and unwanted animals.

"I get in animals all the time," said owner Shirley Cannan.  Her nonprofit organization has a contract with Orange County Animal Services to care for animals that have been abandoned or captured.

"People don't have the proper enclosures, or they walk outside with the animal and it gets away," said Cannan.  She is always looking for responsible pet owners to adopt snakes, birds, lizards, tortoises, and other exotics brought to her facility.

Although most escaped animals are eventually captured, not all have been found.  An unidentified number of monkeys, lemurs, snakes and lizards remain at large, records show.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.