How to mark escaped/free-roaming pets?

I often come across observations of animals that are very obviously escaped/free-roaming pets or otherwise formerly captive animals. For example there is absolutely no way this Prairie-Dog or this Leopard Tortoise are of a wild origin or even that they belong to a feral population.
Same applies to virtually all dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses, etc. (at least here in Germany).
However, in inaturalists Help sections under What does captive / cultivated mean? such cases are conveniently left out. There seems to be no guideline on how to mark animals that do not belong to a wild (incl. feral) population, but are currently free-roaming.
Personally, I’d like to mark them all as captive, but feel conflicted when there’s no guideline. I guess, there’s a whole trail of follow up questions that could arise (e.g. what constitutes an established feral population, what about free-roaming pets that persist for decades (e.g. some pond turtles)).

How do others feel about this issue?
Can i go ahead and mark all domestic animals and escaped pets as captive, even though they are in fact currently not in captivity?

1 Like

Recurring question, rather well-defined (in spite of a few unknowns and gray areas):
in iNat lore, “captive / cultivated means that the observation is of an organism that exists in the time and place it was observed because humans intended it to be then and there

N.B. It refers to individuals rather than populations or species. Deciding whether an individual is ‘wild or captive’ requires more insights than simply knowing it belongs to a ‘domestic’ species. Feral domestic cats are wild. Feral domestic cows are wild.


Just a quick sidenote, in case you have been generally marking all cats in Germany as “not wild”…

It is really bad in some parts of Germany and unfortunatley not really talked about and known by many…

Other then that, both cases you menioned I would mark wild in that situation. If I encounter a dog with collar and leash in a park but no human around, because it just escaped, I would probably still mark it as captive… there is some wiggle room in the definition I think


I’m surprised how many threads have already dealt with the problem; when I opened this one I assumed I’d be shown if there were already similar threads by the AI, but I wasn’t.

This thread for example went into much more detail than I did, but ultimately the problem is always the same. There are are animals that are not captive, but not feral (= wild) either. They are escaped/released pets that are unlikely to form new populations or even persist through the next winter.
The terms wild/captive do not fittingly apply. Peoples opinions on how to handle them differ for various reasons leading to an inconsistent treatment of these observations. The aforementioned guidelines leave out this recurring matter entirely, when there’s an entire section that’s supposed to address the topic. I think that section needs a thourough update and a clear guideline on how to handle this data.

The way it currently is makes me quite unhappy. Trying to figure out what species I still want to find in Germany I get lists of unobserved species that look like this

The only species here that are of relevance to me are Asp Viper and Catalonian Wall Lizard, which have wild or feral populations in Germany. All others are released/escaped pets, which won’t probably ever reproduce and which I don’t care about.

There are maps like these (of Domestic sheep), where I doubt that a single individual actually pertains to a wild population that isn’t closely monitored and managed by a human (in this case a shepherd).

I probably shouldn’t change the status of this Domestic Horse to captive as there is no fence or person visible nearby, although there’s a 100% chance it isn’t actually wild in any sense whatsoever.

Of course an off-leash dog that ran away from its owner can have devastating effects to an ecosystem, but so do off-leash dogs with nearby owners who don’t care.

1 Like

My suggestion: if you do not care about a species, perhaps do not open up the Observations to mark them as captive. Leave that determination to the Observer and/or those to whom that species does matter.

How wonderful that the dogs and cats of Germany have been effectively spayed and neutered into the absence of any stray population or the possibility of a pup or kitten being born unhomed!


The problem is not that the data exists. The problem is that it’s falsely/inconsistendly labelled and I can’t filter it out!

I am so sorry. I sometimes forget not everyone uses iNaturalist in the same way I do or compartmentalizes in quite the same way.

Of course you can filter to only show the data in which you are interested. It sometimes takes some figuring out, but I have seen the extremely smart and helpful people here provide custom data parameters for many people.

What are you trying to see and not see, specifically?

If there’s a taxon you want to exclude from display, you can add parameters to the URL:

This way you could see a map of e.g. German reptiles without those few ‘exotic’ species that you don’t care about (no matter their captive-or-not status).


Unfortunately there isn’t a way to filter out released/“wild” pets that aren’t yet part of a sustained population (staff started a topic about possibilities a few years ago). Unfortunately no clear resolution yet but that conversation could be continued here:

I understood that he was not interested in dogs/cats/any species other than the 2 specified? Perhaps I am mistaken. (It happens so often!)

I would like to have a curated list of species that are native to a place because they reached it by themselves or because their prolonged presence in the area means they have actually had significant impact on the environment. I’d like to filter out observations of animals that escaped from the next door pet shop, but will likely be killed by a car/predator/weather in the next few days (to months).
I’d like to be able to categorize individual sightings instead of species. For example there’s an established population of Greater Rhea near where i live. They’ve been hanging around since the mid-2000s. Occassionally a Rhea might escape from an aviary and run around for a few weeks before being caught again. IMHO these should be treated differently.

1 Like

Among others, I think @raymie knows where to find such lists. (He is a wealth of information about native versus invasive species.)

Let’s say I visit briefly this area during the next holidays, see a dead Greater Rhea in the ditch of some countryside road, take a pic, upload it to iNat. Should I mark it (in iNat lore) ‘wild’ or ‘captive’? How could I know whether it briefly escaped from the truck of a circus/zoo, or simply walked away from the ‘established population’ you mention?

1 Like

Currently iNat requires me to have knowledge of a taxons establishment status (which luckily I have in Germany). Most people would have probably missed the Catalonian Wall Lizard among all those other introduced pets in the screenshot above. However that species has been present and reproducing at a specific site for decades, while all other species shown have not (to my knowledge) ever reproduced and some of them were likely taken back to captivity right after being found and uploaded to iNat (especially the tortoises and snakes).
If I went to another region and wanted to learn about the organisms occurring there iNat could potentially be a magnificient resource, very similar to a field guide, but this is muddled by dozens of species of escaped individuals, perhaps even at an often frequented area. Under the current guidelines (as i understand them) I could build the largest list of species by going to a nearby zoo, opening their enclosure for five minutes (and then helping to recapture everything) as the animal was “wild” for that period of time and potentially could’ve started a new feral population.

Let’s say I visit briefly this area during the next holidays, see a dead Greater Rhea in the ditch of some countryside road, take a pic, upload it to iNat. Should I mark it (in iNat lore) ‘wild’ or ‘captive’? How could I know whether it briefly escaped from the truck of a circus/zoo, or simply walked away from the ‘established population’ you mention?

You’d either mark it as wild if it had a chance of interbreeding with the established population and captive if it was too far away / unlikely to interbreed or preferably there’d be a second button below the “wild/captive” flag for a “part of naturalized population” flag. One could set the bar for this naturalization process very low and say that a single documented reproduction in the wild in the last five years would suffice or something like that.

I have two problems with the current way things are handled.

  1. The guidelines currently have a big hole in them as they don’t explain how these situations are to be handled.
  2. If all animals away from cages are to considered wild, regional species lists can potentially be enlarged infinitely without there being any ecological meaning to them.

That is not what “wild” means in context of iNat.
Please read the guide or the above citation again… so your example of opening cages of zoo animals does not apply but creates a strawman.

You suggestions are also not really feasable in my book. In some cases it might be clear that a certain species might not reproduce and survive… in others it is not.
For example recently there was a first time observation of a spider in Germany recorded here on iNat. This spider was likely introduced with some garden plants (found near a garden centre) and will rpobanly die when winter comes… but as it was an adult female, what do I know about whether it will reproduce and leave offspring here or not? Maybe it is the documentation of the starting point of an invasion… like the first documentation of this asian hornet that was thought to be only shipped in and to not reproduce until they found the first nest. It is valid data.

Wild/not wild is handled differently here then in other places, also because one has to take into account what we can know and what we don’t (still like your interesting cat example that shows, how easy a situation might be misjudged)


Your definition of ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated/captive’ is not the one used by iNaturalist. Unfortunate choice of wording - the ‘wild’ of iNat is not the same as the ‘wild’ of botany and zoology textbooks.

Still, I do not see any ‘big hole’ in iNat’s definitions. Once/if you accept it does not convey the exact same meaning, then the ones used on iNat work reasonably well as they are rememberable (a couple of lines in the Help section) and… quite convenient (sparing much time and sweat). There’s usually no need for wild guesses -pun intended- or extensive scientific research about the [pre-]historic origin / reproductive success / putative longevity of whole populations / species over decades / centuries / millennia; just look at that one individual, search for evidence of a clay pot/barbed wire, and maybe ask the neighbours (did you plant this pretty cactus? is it a pet peacock standing on your lawn?)


As was pointed out to me earlier, this discussion is a recurring topic that has bothered many other users in the past and surely will continue do in the future.
My point stands: The guidelines require clarification.

Actually, if you point me so heavily towards the exact wording of the guidelines, then I’ll happily go and mark all the animals that bother me as captive. There’s no way those tortoises and snakes intended to reach Germany and after this I heavily doubt they intended to leave their enclosure to go live in a surrounding that will likely get them killed. The intention was was clearly on the humans side when they released the animal or at least it was carelessness on the humans part.

I’d argue that for every species that actually gets established there are several hundreds that don’t. As time goes on the database will be muddled further and further while the information gain remains small.

Personally, I’m strongly in favour of curating that data (which is already happening but inconsistently)

It is not about what the animal intented. It is about what humans intented (read again). Humans did not intent an organism to escape it’s enclosure and roam around. Thus, per iNat definition, it is in that instance (time and place) wild… an organism might change it’s iNat definition of wild/not wild over the course of it’s life.

I think you make it look harder then it is.
You might not agree to the wording or definition itself… but it still works best in iNat universe. At least I did not see a feasable alternative so far, that works better


If you don’t feel like ‘playing by the iNat rules’ (however stupid they may be) and intend to conflate ‘introduced’ (in the biogeography textbook sense) with ‘captive/cultivated’ (in the iNaturalist sense)… then who will set free the many Podarcis liolepis transported against their will and now captive in Germany? (Certainly no lizard in its right mind would ever move of its own accord from sunny Catalonia to damp Niedersachsen! ;))