Meet PIJAC’s Experts: Scott Hardin on Exotic Species
By Ed Sayres
Scott Hardin—a biologist, expert on exotic and invasive species and proud owner of a ball python named Ricky (as in Lucy’s husband)—has the kind of insight that comes only with years of experience working at the intersection of science, environmental stewardship and public policy, balancing conservation of fish and wildlife with responsible pet ownership. Risk analysis, best management practices, outreach and education are his preferred tools to reduce the chance of introducing invasive species while protecting the rights of responsible exotic pet owners.
Before becoming a scientific advisor to PIJAC in 2012, Scott served as the Exotic Species Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating and managing native and non-native species. Scott’s job was to manage non-native wildlife to prevent adverse impacts on the environment in a state that has long been an epicenter for exotic fish and wildlife. In that role, Scott worked to incorporate science-based risk assessment into the framework of managing exotics to identify the truly invasive or dangerous species and implement appropriate restrictions rather than blanket prohibitions against ownership.
As Scott puts it, “It’s critical to keep science in the forefront. There are many non-native species, but as a matter of science, very few of them are invasive. It’s what is called the rule of tens: Only about 10% of the animals introduced actually become established, reproduce and spread, and only about 10% of those cause any harm. Even though the numbers are a little higher in some places, the bottom line is that only a very small minority of non-native species is harmful. Based on the data I’ve collected over many years, our time and resources would best be spent identifying and weeding out the small group of bad actors.”
With a philosophy grounded in facts, Scott calls for best management practices that are flexible and tailored to particular segments of the pet industry. His recent accomplishments bear this out:
PIJAC established the National Reptile Improvement Plan (NRIP) in 2003, to identify policies and procedures to minimize the risk of introducing unwanted parasites to the U.S. The program was a coordinated effort among concerned experts in the reptile and amphibian trade and hobby, the USDA, the Florida Department of Agriculture and PIJAC. It proved to be an effective response to concerns at the time about certain types of imported tortoises—African spurred tortoises and leopard tortoises—and monitor lizards that carry ticks that in turn harbor bacteria that cause heartwater disease, a killer of cattle, sheep, goats, antelope and buffalo.
This issue cropped up again in 2012, when the problematic ticks were discovered at the Port of Miami. To address the renewed threat, Scott worked collaboratively with importers, exporters, the USDA and the Florida Departments of Agriculture and Consumer Services to expand on the NRIP protocols. What resulted was the Tick Interception Protocol for Reptiles Imported into the United States of America, introduced in 2012, amended in 2013, and today the authoritative roadmap for managing the risk of dangerous parasites on imported reptiles.
Scott then helped the pet industry get proactive. In 2013, he assembled guidelines for the feeder rodent industry—the business of growing and selling rats and mice as a food source for reptiles and birds of prey. At the time, no such guidelines were in place, and rather than live with the specter of overregulation, the industry got out in front of the issue. To that end, Scott consulted with feeder rodent producers across the country. The result of their wisdom is a comprehensive set of best practices that protect the welfare of rats and mice, ensure a vital food source for reptiles and birds of prey and safeguard public health.
When it comes to promoting responsible, rewarding exotic pet ownership, Scott takes a practical, results-oriented approach.
While at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Scott designed the state’s successful Exotic Pet Amnesty Program as an alternative to releasing non-native pets into the wild. In this program, which hosts adoption events for all exotic reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, mammals and invertebrates, a veterinarian examines every pet brought in, and all healthy pets are placed with qualified, pre-approved adopters. The program has gone a long way toward raising awareness among pet owners about why it’s important not to release exotic animals.
Driven by an interest in making fish ownership a gratifying experience, Scott is developing MyRightFish.com, a new website he calls “a marine aquarium resource for the beginner,” which helps newcomers to the saltwater aquarium hobby identify the right fish for them. The site’s information and technical tips help ensure a suitable owner-pet match, which in turn helps prevent dumping of marine fish.
Scott is a passionate advocate for exotic pets and their owners alike: “The reptile community doesn’t get enough credit for its stance on conservation. Most reptile owners I know are compassionate people who not only care deeply about the species in their possession but also don’t want to see anything go extinct. They have a keen understanding of the relevant issues and know what responsible pet ownership requires. To ensure that regulatory guidelines are reasonable and will be followed, regulators should take full advantage of the experience of producers and keepers so that the process can benefit from their knowledge and perspective.”