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

It’s not unusual, but still fun, when you see a headline about a huge Florida alligator strutting around a golf course, climbing a fence, or even trying to cross a busy road.

Floridians have come to appreciate alligators and realize that we have built our homes where their homes were.

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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 policeman.

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

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

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

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

Our team of investigators has mapped all exotic animal escapes in Florida. So how did our reporter, Mike Deforest, come up with the idea?

Mike said the investigation originated five or six years ago when an escaped animal made headlines.

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

Mike went on to explain how people were quite intrigued by this sneaky snake, so much so that it was followed on social media.

“Someone had made a Twitter account for the escaped cobra,” Mike recalled. “It was a serious story, so it made us think about how often these animals escape,” he explained. “People were really interested in our findings, so we thought, (since) it’s 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 that we recently published.”

And what a connection it was.

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

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One of the most 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 escaped, although he said he left the animal unattended in a screened porch.

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

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

Our investigator details the time an 11-foot-long anaconda escaped from a man’s home. A neighbor found it in a garage 6 km away.

We should also mention that Garner said the snake was probably hungry because he forgot to feed it that night.

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

Mike says there was even a report of a famous elephant.

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

“Now that elephant wasn’t running around the zoo,” Mike said. “It was still in the confined area where pets are allowed, but it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”

It was closed.

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

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

“Looks like this nifty meerkat found some rock work, just made a handy ramp, and ran 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 back into the exhibit.”

Our team of investigators has mapped exotic animal escapes. We had to google some of these crazy animals from Florida’s Fourth Estate.

Mike said the rogue meerkat didn’t cause any problems and that Disney quickly fixed the issue so something like this wouldn’t happen again.

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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 getting into trouble and possibly facing fines.

Garner, the man whose 11ft yellow anaconda escaped, has been charged with failing to stop the snake from escaping and illegally possessing a prohibited species.

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

The anaconda was found three months after escaping more than four miles from that screened porch.

A man was trying to close his garage door but something big was preventing it from closing completely.

Turns out it was the escaped anaconda. Yeah.

If you’re really interested in knowing if there’s an exotic animal on the loose near you, the web team at has compiled a map of all reported escapes.

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You might 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 search for it. It’s pretty cute. So is a kinkajou.

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

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