INTERACTIVE: 220 escaped animals reported to Florida wildlife officials since 2016, records show

Owners of certain captive wildlife are required to report escapes to state

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Shortly before James Bronzo permanently closed his longtime East Orange County wildlife sanctuary last year, a four-foot-long lizard known as an Asian water monitor escaped from its outdoor cage and wandered into a neighbor’s backyard.

The unnerved neighbor contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in June 2021 to report the giant lizard, records show, prompting a state wildlife officer to be dispatched to the property with equipment to capture the monitor, which can be legally possessed without a license.

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As the lizard was being returned to the wildlife sanctuary, Bronzo told the FWC officer that an intruder may have tampered with the cage.

“I thought I got robbed. The cage doors were open,” Brozno said, according to a video recording captured by the FWC officer’s body-worn camera.

Despite Bronzo’s allegation that a trespasser was responsible, which he admittedly did not report to law enforcement, the FWC officer found evidence suggesting the lizard could have escaped from the cage on its own by pushing through a loosely secured door.

“He may have legitimately escaped,” the FWC officer told Bronzo.

Bronzo’s Asian water monitor is among more than 200 escaped captive animals reported to FWC since 2016, according to agency documents obtained by News 6 through a public records request.

The escaped animals, which include some exotic and non-native species requiring state licenses to possess, slipped away from enclosures located in homes, businesses, wildlife sanctuaries and accredited zoos, state records show.

Only certain species of captive animals must be reported to FWC when they escape. The state agency believes those escapes are under-reported due to the owners’ apprehension and fear of enforcement action.

“People need to know you need good cages,” Bronzo told News 6 after pleading no contest to violating the state’s caging requirements, a second-degree misdemeanor. He was not required to report the lizard’s escape under FWC rules.

Bronzo paid $273 in court costs and made a $250 donation to a wildlife trust fund to resolve the matter, court records show.

An 11-feet-long yellow anaconda escaped from the Tallahassee home of Kim Garner in July 2021 after the owner admitted to leaving the large snake unattended in a screen-enclosed porch, FWC records show.

“I always watch her and keep my eyes on her. But this time I forgot and I had her loose on the porch a little too long and I forgot to feed her that night,” Garner told an FWC investigator, who said his pet snake could be “dangerous”.

Three months later, at a home located more than four miles from where the anaconda escaped, Roy Holland attempted to close his garage door, but it would not completely shut.

“(I) opened the garage door and saw the snake half in and half out,” Holland told FWC investigators. He later killed the snake by shooting it, records show.

The agency later determined the snake was the same yellow anaconda that escaped from Garner’s home.

Gardner was charged with failing to prevent the snake’s escape and illegally possessing a prohibited species. Although Florida banned the possession of yellow anacondas in 2019, Garner could have sought a permit since he acquired the snake before the law took effect.

Last month state prosecutors dismissed the misdemeanor charges against Garner because he successfully completed a pretrial intervention program, court records show.

Garner did not respond to voicemail messages left by News 6.

Other escaped animals reported to FWC by animal owners or witnesses since 2016 include:

  • A male orangutan escaped from a non-public exercise yard at Busch Gardens in Tampa “for about an hour” in June 2016, FWC records show. Investigators later found a small portion of the wire mesh enclosure had been compromised. About two weeks later, a female orangutan temporarily escaped from an open-topped habitat at the same theme park, according to records. An agency investigator did not identify any obvious point of exit.
  • A cobra vanished from an Ocala home in 2017 after being improperly handled by an apprentice caregiver, according to FWC. The agency is unaware of the snake ever being recovered. Prosecutors later dropped misdemeanor charges against the apprentice after he completed a pretrial intervention program, court records show.
  • A gate was accidentally left open at the Hillsborough County home of the owners of a traveling circus in 2017, records show, allowing a zebra to leave the property and run through adjacent neighborhoods before being captured.
  • While a Tampa man was feeding his girlfriend’s Tamarin monkey, the small primate escaped from its cage and climbed a nearby tree in 2017. The man contacted a privately-owned bucket truck to lift him into the tree to retrieve the licensed pet.
  • Two chimpanzees escaped from a Miami wildlife facility in 2018. After being seen on a road outside the facility, FWC officers used chemical immobilization darts to safely capture the primates.
  • An employee of an Okeechobee Home Depot was attacked by a spider monkey that escaped from its owner while shopping at the store in 2018, according to FWC
  • An elephant once owned by singer Michael Jackson briefly wandered out of its enclosure at the Jacksonville Zoo in 2018 after an employee left a gate open, records show.
  • A professional boxer was charged with 22 offenses related to the escape of an unlicensed pet cougar from his home in Parkland in 2019.
  • An exotic African serval was captured while wandering through Palm Bay in 2020. The owner, who mistakenly thought he had purchased a domesticated breed of cat that does not require licensing, told FWC his children accidentally allowed it to escape from their home.
  • A meerkat exited an exhibit at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2020 by using an undetected ramp carved in artificial rockwork, according to FWC records. The meerkat retreated back into the exhibit after presumably being scared by employees communicating via two-way radios.
  • An injured kangaroo belonging to Busch Gardens that was being cared for by a zoological employee at the employee’s Land O’ Lakes home escaped from an enclosure in the worker’s yard in 2021, records show. It was captured in the neighborhood the next day.

Under current FWC rules, anyone possessing a non-indigenous venomous reptile or a “reptile of concern” such as a Burmese python or green anaconda is required to report escapes to the agency.

Owners of “Class I” wildlife are also required to report escapes to FWC. “Class I” wildlife includes lions, tigers, crocodiles, chimpanzees, orangutans, bears, elephants, Komodo dragons, hyenas, and siamangs.

FWC is considering a proposal (IBE Reporting 68A-6.018 (myfwc.com)) that would expand escape reporting requirements to the owners of “Class II” wildlife (Class II Wildlife | FWC (myfwc.com) ) that includes bobcats, servals, alligators, macaques, wolverines and howler monkeys. Under the proposal, owners of capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys and woolly monkeys would also be required to report escapes, along with owners of native venomous reptiles such as rattlesnakes and coral snakes.


About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.