Here’s how non-native animals can pose a real threat to Florida wildlife

State agency believes people are underreporting escaped animals because they fear consequences

Listen to the latest episode of Florida's Fourth Estate in full here. This episode, Matt, Ginger and News 6 investigator Mike DeForest discuss exotic animal escapes in Florida.

It’s not unusual, but always entertaining, when we see a headline about a huge Florida alligator strutting across a golf course, climbing a fence or even trying to cross a busy road.

Floridians have come to appreciate alligators and realize we’ve built our homes where their homes used to be.

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Nowadays, it would almost be a welcome sight to spot an alligator because we mostly know what to do—get out of its way or call your friendly neighborhood police officer.

Lately though, we’ve come across animals that catch us by surprise because they are not what we expect to see in the Sunshine State.

On this week’s edition of Florida’s Fourth Estate, hosts Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin take a walk on the wild side and look closer at some of the more unusual creatures found slithering, climbing, hopping, running or burrowing in Florida.

News 6 investigator Mike DeForest joined Ginger and Matt to talk about his recent report on escaped animals found in some unusual places.

The first thing we wanted to know was what sparked the idea for this story.

Our investigative team mapped out all exotic animals escapes in Florida. So, how did our reporter, Mike Deforest, get the idea?

Mike said the investigation was born five or six years ago when an escaped animal was making headlines.

“A cobra escaped in Orlando,” Mike told us. “It was later found behind somebody’s dryer.”

Mike went on to explain how people were pretty intrigued by this sneaky snake—so much so it gained a social media following.

“Somebody had created a Twitter account for the escaped cobra,” Mike recalled. “It was a serious story so it got us thinking about how often these animals escape,” he explained. “People were really interested by our findings so we thought, (since) it has been five or six years since we (last) looked, let’s take a look at the last five or six years, and that was the report we recently published.”

And what a report it was.

From a zebra running loose on a construction site in Hillsborough County to a spider monkey named “Spanky” who got loose inside a Home Depot and scratched an employee’s face.

One of the more interesting people in Mike’s story is a man named Kim Garner from Tallahassee.

Garner admitted to authorities he had no idea how his 11-foot long yellow anaconda had escaped even though he said he left the animal unattended in a screened-in porch.

The snake made quick work of the screen but left behind a parting gift: 11 feet of snake skin.

Once Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission investigators questioned him about the missing snake, Garner also admitted the snake could be “dangerous.”

Our investigator details the time an 11-foot-long anaconda escaped a man's home. A neighbor found it in a garage 4 miles away.

We should also mention Garner said the snake was likely hungry because he had forgotten to feed it that night.

And you would be wrong to think the escaped creatures were always snakes kept by people who were careless.

Mike says there has even been a report about a famous elephant.

“There was one that belonged to the Jacksonville Zoo. It used to belong to Michael Jackson at the Neverland Ranch. The Jacksonville Zoo got it and it appears a gate got left open,” Mike said.

“Now this elephant wasn’t running through the zoo,” Mike said. “It was still within the contained area where animals are allowed but it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”

That was close.

Even Disney had a close encounter when a meerkat got a brief glimpse of life on the outside.

Mike explained how a man made a rock wall at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and helped launch the animal out of its enclosure.

“It looks like this crafty meerkat found some of the rock work, made just a very convenient ramp, and it ran up it,” Mike said. “When the workers all descended on the escaped meerkat, they were on their walkie talkies, and that must have scared the meerkat to go back into the exhibit.”

Our investigative team made a map of exotic animal escapes. We had to google some of these crazy animals on Florida's Fourth Estate.

Mike said the rogue meerkat didn’t cause any issues and Disney quickly fixed the area of concern so something like that would not happen again.

But how often does this kind of thing happen?

According to the report, since 2016 people have reported at least 220 escaped animals to Florida wildlife officials.

FWC believes escapes are underreported because owners fear they will get in trouble and possibly face fines.

Garner, the man whose 11-foot yellow anaconda got loose, faced charges for failing to prevent the snake’s escape and illegally possessing a prohibited species.

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

The anaconda was found three months after it escaped more than four miles from that screened-in porch.

A man was trying to close his garage door but something large was stopping it from shutting all the way.

Turns out it was the escaped anaconda. Yikes.

If you are really interested in knowing if there is some exotic animal on the loose near you, the web team at put together a map of all the reported escapes.

You may want to see it if for no other reason than to find out what some of these animals are.

Do you know what a green amevia is? We had to look it up. It’s kind of cute. So is a kinkajou.

You can also listen to the full podcast and see the interactive map by clicking on the link.

About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.