The seven-foot lizard is a species that can be legally purchased online for less than $200.
The Asian water monitor is popular among — those who prefer ball pythons, tarantulas, scorpions and other less-than-cuddly creatures to the more standard dogs and cats.
You can buy a baby one with a credit card from Snakes at Sunset of Miami for $169.99, with the live lizard shipped to your home by FedEx. Underground Reptiles of sells them for $69.99. Go!Lizards of Kansas sells them for $135. Adults command higher prices, New England Reptile Distributors charging from $750 to more than $1,000.
According to Reptiles magazine, young ones require a diet of “fish, frogs and an occasional newborn rodent.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has restricted personal ownership of , green anacondas, Nile monitors and other species considered harmful if they escape captivity. But the agency has imposed no restrictions on ownership of Asian water monitors.
For the past two weeks, a 7-foot, 150-pound Asian monitor has been turning up around the Davie home of Zachary and Maria Lieberman, who have two young children. They called trappers, but so far no one has been able to catch it. State wildlife officials say it’s probably a pet that escaped or was released.
Although Lieberman says he has nothing against responsible exotic pet owners, he thinks there should be some legal safeguards in place to prevent just anyone from acquiring a potentially dangerous animal.
“I don’t think you should be able to go on the internet and buy one with a credit card,” he said. “I’d like to see more restrictions on who can acquire them — proper caging and precautions to make sure they don’t escape.”
In the past two years, the state wildlife commission has received 14 calls about water monitor lizards in different parts of Florida.
These are thought to be isolated cases of escaped or released pets. Unlike Burmese pythons, or , the Asian water monitor has not established a breeding, self-sustaining population in Florida. But the wildlife commission says it takes the reports seriously because water monitors could be dangerous to people, particularly if cornered, and kill native wildlife.
“We consider this species a high priority for rapid response because of the potential adverse impacts to native wildlife and human health and safety,” said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the wildlife commission.
Asked by email why the wildlife commission still allowed the trade in these species to continue, she said she would try to get an answer and then didn’t provide anything.
Kate MacFall, Florida director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the monitor lizard’s presence on Lieberman’s property shows the consequences of the trade in exotic pets and the state’s failure to regulate it.
“The Asian water monitor has not established a breeding, self-sustaining population in Florida – yet,” she said. “The exotic pet trade is the number one cause of Florida’s invasive species problem.”
“The state’s minimal to non-existent regulation and oversight regarding the private possession of reptiles results in serious and costly problems that include poor animal welfare, public health and safety risks, unmonitored and dangerous exhibitions, environmental damage, and illegal animal trafficking.”
Native to southern and southeastern Asia, including the islands of Indonesia, the Asian monitor consumes a vast range of prey — fish, crabs, amphibians, rodents, snakes, eggs and young crocodiles. They also scavenge on dead animals. They defend themselves with sharp claws and teeth and a powerful tail.
“All monitor species may pose significant threats to native Florida wildlife due to their broad diets,” Segelson said.
State wildlife officials ask the public to report sightings by calling or at . Anyone who wants to get rid of an Asian water monitor or other exotic pet can do so legally through the state’s exotic pet amnesty program, with more information available at .