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Pet owners bid their exotic pets farewell

ST. PETERSBURG — Her light blue eyes cast with disappointment, the little blond girl moseyed down the rain-soaked path next to her father. She wore a white T-shirt, red shorts, fading pink Crocs and, as a slithering sash, a 6-foot red-tailed boa constrictor named Marley.

Its roommate, Ziggy, also about 6 feet long, was draped on the girl's father.

On a gloomy Saturday morning, Michael Keen and his daughter, Jennifer, had come to bid their reptilian friends farewell at Pinellas County's first Exotic Pet Amnesty Day. The events, held statewide, give people who can't care for their animals a chance to give them up rather than set them loose or have them killed.

"All these animals will find new homes by the end of the day," said event organizer Brian Pavlina, noting that the prospective adopters had been prescreened.

For four hours, people pulled their cars into Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, past a sign that read "NO PETS," and unloaded ball pythons, boa constrictors, red-eared slider turtles, a ferret and a pygmy possum, among others. The creatures came in all shapes, sizes and temperaments.

By midday, Pavlina had a bloody nick on his nose courtesy of an interaction with a disgruntled green iguana named Fuzzy.

Ziggy and Marley were, fittingly, given their namesake, much more mellow.

Keen and Jennifer approached a pavilion and introduced the snakes to an official with the Florida Wildlife Commission. A dozen empty animal crates were piled on the grass nearby.

"You guys will find a home for them?" Keen asked.

The official explained that they would.

Keen turned to his daughter, who is 10, and rested his hand on her head.

"You okay?" he asked.

With Marley now wrapped around her leg, she nodded.

"Yeah," she said.

The Keens were giving up the snakes because the family couldn't devote as much time to the animals as they used to. Father and daughter placed the pair in separate white bags, meant to keep them calm.

"Bye, Marley," Jennifer said, running her hand over his scales.

"Be good, dude," Keen added. Moments earlier, Travis Davis had arrived from Tampa with his conure, Ajax, a tropical bird with yellow flecks in its red coat.

"I just can't take care of him," he explained to a volunteer. "My parents passed away a couple months ago."

His voice trembled.

"I just can't," he said.

Eight years ago, he was volunteering at a sanctuary that was going to euthanize the bird so Davis offered to take it in, but its health has since declined.

Sitting at a picnic table, Davis explained to a volunteer that Ajax seldom made noise anymore and had failing eyesight. He finished the paperwork and walked to the bird's cage. He took a deep breath and leaned down.

"Be good, kid," he said.

Not all there had come to relinquish animals. At least one man planned to take a few home.

A long pony-tail curled from beneath his wide-brim gray hat. He leaned on a metal cane and wore a bushy gray beard, camouflage pants and a black T-shirt imprinted with snakes. He said he would take any animals not adopted by others. He refused to say his name or where he lived or how many pets he owned, but he did tell a veterinarian that his electric bill to maintain the collection was $800 a month.

Others, like Heather Bryen and her daughter, Aeryal, who is 9, weren't there to drop off or pick up. Just observe and enjoy — at least according to Bryen.

"Mom, I really want a snake," said Aeryal, a camera hanging from her neck.

No, mom said.

"Then, can I have a puppy?"

Bryen ignored that one.

"Can I have a lizard?"

Nothing.

"Can I have a really mean iguana?"

Still nothing.

"Can I have a really cute opossum?"

Bryen's head snapped over.

"Yeah," she said, "you're not taking the opossum home."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Pet owners bid their exotic pets farewell 07/13/13 [Last modified: Saturday, July 13, 2013 9:20pm]
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