Customs officers investigating an attempt to smuggle an exotic pet, known as a sugar glider, into Grand Cayman, found numerous other animals including snakes and a lizard in a follow-up search of a property on the island.
Two people, a 31-year-old man and a 26-year-old woman, were arrested last week after the sugar glider, a type of possum, got loose on a Cayman Airways jet from Miami, startling passengers. It is understood that the animal was being illegally transported in a passenger’s hand luggage when it escaped, just as the plane landed, on Wednesday night.
A later search of a property in Grand Cayman resulted in the confiscation of further exotic animals, including snakes and a lizard, not usually found in Grand Cayman.
Multiple sources have told the Compass that one of those arrested is a close relative of a currently serving member of the Legislative Assembly. However, by press time Sunday afternoon, the Customs Department had not released the names of any of those arrested.
The animals, the species of which have yet to be determined in some cases, were handed over to the Department of Agriculture as customs officers continue to investigate. A third individual was arrested on suspicion of drug related offenses following the search of a second property on Thursday.
The exotic pet find has sparked concerns among animal welfare groups and environment officials, who fear potential disease and ecosystem impacts could stem from the unregulated movement of non-indigenous animals.
Cayman Airways CEO Fabian Whorms said the airline was conducting its own investigation and would be seeking to determine how the pet had got through security at Miami Airport undetected.
Mr. Whorms told the Compass, Friday, “I can confirm that on KX 107 on June 7, 2017, a small animal being transported by a passenger separated from the passenger and wandered for a brief period through the aircraft cabin until it was captured by the supposed owner with the assistance of our cabin crew.
“We are very concerned about this incident which caused considerable distress to our passengers and crew and would like to sincerely apologize to our passengers for this unanticipated experience.”
Collector of Customs Charles Clifford said in a statement that the animal had been identified as a type of possum, known as a sugar glider. A sugar glider is a small nocturnal possum, with a body about six inches in length (plus another six inches for the tail), and weighing between 4 and 5 ounces. The marsupial is endemic to Australia and the southwest Pacific region and can “glide” through the air like a flying squirrel.
Mark Thompson was on the flight from Miami to Grand Cayman, Wednesday, when the incident occurred.
He said, “I saw a little grey creature rush by my leg. At first I thought it was a mouse.”
He said the flight attendant and one of the other passengers chased after it and eventually got hold of it.
“Some people on the plane were a bit shaken. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me at the time, though I’m pretty sure you need permits for that kind of thing.”
He later saw a couple being questioned at the customs desk with the animal in a small plastic cage.
Sugar gliders are popular as exotic pets and are legal to own in Florida. However the import of any live animal into the Cayman Islands requires a permit from the Department of Agriculture, while the National Conservation Law also regulates the import of invasive or alien species.
Frederic Burton, the Department of Environment’s terrestrial resources manager, said the find was concerning.
“If it can get loose on Cayman Airways, it can get loose in Cayman. Escaped pets are the start of so many environmental nightmares – take the green iguanas as the obvious and most topical example. This is a tropical/subtropical species, from the opposite hemisphere. It was introduced from Australia to Tasmania, so is capable of being invasive and can deal with a wide range of climates.”
Lesley Agostinelli, of the Cayman Animal Rescue Enthusiasts, said the animal welfare charity had heard anecdotal reports of exotic pets being brought illegally into Cayman in the past.
She said it was dangerous for the animal to be transported without proper procedures being followed.
“We don’t know how many animals have been brought in like this. How many made it and how many didn’t?
“You also have to question how much the owners know about the needs and care of these animals. Given that they are illegal to own, it is unlikely they have access to proper veterinary care.
“This type of wildlife movement is extremely concerning for the community for a number of reasons, not least because we have enough trouble already with poorly looked after domestic pets, let alone high-maintenance exotic animals.”