Iguana wrangler traps invasive reptiles across South Florida
Brian Wood patiently waits for his prey to chomp down on a strawberry. Then, with a flick of his wrists and a muted “Gotcha!” he reels in his catch on a fishing pole rigged with a noose. It’s a three-foot green iguana, scratching the air with its claws. With the right special effects, this distant dinosaur cousin could star in a new Japanese monster movie about giant iguanas stomping through downtown Miami, whacking luxury condo towers to bits with their terrible tails as people tumble from balconies and run screaming through the streets.
We’ve already got hurricanes, king tides, algae blooms, pythons, lionfish. And now, brace yourself, South Florida, for the invasion of the iguanas. These creatures might even outlive the cockroach.
Iguanas are everywhere they never used to be: Swimming in your pool, sunning on your patio, climbing your trees, getting stuck in your toilet, squatting on the deck of your boat, eating your plants, burrowing under your lawn, poking into transformers and causing power outages, roaming golf course fairways, stealing lettuce from the gorillas at Zoo Miami, nesting beneath tombstones, undermining seawalls, airport runways, sewer lines, levees, canal banks. Why, they’re even part of the crowd on 41st Street in Miami Beach, moving along the sidewalks with that slither-saunter of theirs, ready to follow you into the bank or drugstore.
“It’s a green plague,” said Joe Wasilewski, conservation biologist and owner of Natural Selections of South Florida. He has removed 12,500 iguanas from Cat Cay in the Bahamas in the past two years. Sixteen tons of iguanas were collected in dump trucks in Grand Cayman during a hunt two years ago. “They are overrunning these islands, including Puerto Rico. Same thing is happening in front of our eyes in South Florida.”
Although no one has taken an iguana census, the population has swollen since the lengthy cold snap at the end of 2009 and start of 2010 that killed thousands. Wood estimates about 70 percent of the population died. Until we get another significant dip below 40 degrees — not a promising scenario given all the heat records falling like frozen iguanas out of trees — or government wildlife officials implement a systematic culling program — or more people add iguana meat to their diet — proliferation will continue. Female iguanas lay 30-60 eggs per year and the typical lifespan is 20 years, with some surviving into their 60s.
“South Florida is Ellis Island for exotic animals,” said Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill, who recently spotted a Nile monitor lizard and a dead coyote in suburban Miami. Iguanas dig into the moats at the zoo, or annoy the gorillas, giraffes and spider monkeys in the Africa section. “We’re Club Med for non-native species. We’ve got a wonderful climate, an abundance of food and no natural predators for iguanas. I don’t see any relief unless a pathogen spreads through the population.”
The range and density of the iguana population has increased so rapidly that the cold-blooded reptile is no longer merely a backyard nuisance but a threat to infrastructure, causing millions of dollars in damage and thwarting water management during flooding or storm surges, said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife ecology professor based in Davie.
“They can poop quite copiously,” said Mazzotti, zeroing in on another unpleasant habit of iguanas, which got their start in the U.S. as popular pets but then, when they grew to be not so lovable, were released into the wild and mated like crazy. “My prediction is we’re nowhere near the peak. Orlando is next.”
A longtime resident of Pine Tree Drive, whose house backs up to Indian Creek in Miami Beach, is at her wit’s end. It has come to this: Her yard is so infested with iguanas that she does not want her name published, for fear that her property value will suffer.
“Nobody wants to live in Jurassic Park,” she said. “They are pooping in my pool; I can hardly swim in it anymore. They’re at my front door. They scratch at my glass sliding door. They’ve gotten so brave I have to chase them away with a stick. I’ve got babies up to 5-footers.”
She’s tried everything as they multiplied over the last two years. Removed trees and landscaping they devour, such as hibiscus and bougainvillea. Hired trappers who would capture 30 in one day, only to have another 30 back the next day. Applied Iguana Rid and placed mothballs and sprinkled a concoction of garlic, lemon juice and chili powder (only worked temporarily). Filled burrows with rocks and covered them with chicken wire.
“I’m miserable in my own home,” she said. “They won.”
Iguanas like to frolic on prime waterfront real estate, like the Key Biscayne golf course.
“We saw at least 50, little gangs of them,” said golfer Evan Vetor, who is from Naples, where he hasn’t seen any iguanas. “It’s like a zoo out there. But the iguanas are not aggressive like the raccoon who stole a sandwich off our cart.”
The Torres family, practicing at the driving range, said iguanas are plentiful in their Key Biscayne neighborhood — there are 30 lounge lizards in the “Iguana Tree” behind their building. An iguana once interrupted a tennis match at the Miami Open.
“They’re cute,” said Arantxa Torres, who owns a stuffed iguana toy she named Iguano. “We’re living where they were living before us. We’re the aliens.”
Wasilewski recalled being on a plane at Fort Lauderdale airport. Takeoff was delayed: Large iguana on runway.
“I wanted to get out and catch the darn thing,” said Wasilewski. He’s been a fan of iguanas and reptiles since he was a kid and a bully stuffed a garter snake down his shirt and he adopted the snake. He serves on the iguana and crocodile specialist groups at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which has identified 16 endangered iguana species. He’s worked throughout the Caribbean, has a new consulting job in Fiji where they have spread and are causing concern, and is removing iguanas in the Keys for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“I love them and I feel like a traitor, but they are stripping landscapes bare and causing roads to collapse,” Wasilewski said. “We’re seeing some weird hybrids that could become our worst nightmare. What happened in Florida was the state put all its money into the python problem. Because iguanas are herbivores who won’t kill dogs or birds they were off the invasive species radar for too long. We need to get a task force ready for the next cold snap when they are easy to catch.”
Wood traps iguanas all over South Florida — at celebrities’ homes on Star Island, at Jungle Island and on Stock Island in the Keys where they are digging through the landfill. It’s a thriving business for trappers from Key West to north Palm Beach County. Did you hear the story about the guy who decided to try his hand at trapping on a cold day when he grabbed a bunch of stunned iguanas and put them in the back seat of his car? As it warmed up, the iguanas woke up and he found himself driving down the road with a car full of crawling critters.
On a recent morning, Wood collected nine iguanas from cage traps set on a poop-speckled canal dock behind a condominium in North Miami Beach. He was paid $50 per iguana.
“It’s only going to get worse,” said Wood, who has noticed how they’ve started to hide under broken barrel tiles on roofs. “You’re going to have a dozen iguanas living on top of your house.”
Most trappers euthanize iguanas using blunt force trauma, an approved humane method for killing them in Florida, which has a strict anti-cruelty law for animals. They shoot them in the brain with a captive bolt gun, like those used on livestock. They stab them in the brain. They hit them in the head with a club, bat or hammer. They bash their heads against pavement.
But when the Humane Society heard about a research team banging iguanas’ heads against walls and boat hulls, condemnation of the “brutal approach” was swift: “Lethal control seldom results in a sustainable or humane solution for wildlife conflicts.”
“We used to freeze them but that turned out to be inhumane,” Wasilewski said. “We’re trying to develop a toxic gas. There is no way to humanely kill a living creature but when you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it cleanly. Nobody wants iguanas and it’s illegal to release non-indigenous species in Florida.”
Not everyone hates iguanas. Larry Hazlewood befriended a big one with orange dorsal spikes who basked in his backyard and swam in his canal. He named him Principe and fed him bananas and apples.
“He loved to be scratched under his arms, on his head, on his dewlap — the flap on the neck,” Hazlewood said. “They have different personalities and you get to know which is which. They’re fascinating animals. They can change the shading of their skin to absorb or reflect heat. They have incredible vision and a third eye on top of the head which is like a light sensor.”
Wood doesn’t immediately kill the iguanas he catches. He’s also an alligator and python trapper and owner of All-American Gator Products, which makes alligator-skin wallets, purses, shoes, briefcases and jackets. Wood takes iguanas and gators to his farm in LaBelle where they live until he’s ready to sell the skin or meat. He’s trying to develop a bigger market for iguana-skin accessories and iguana meat, which is considered a delicacy in some Central and South American countries where iguanas are farmed like cattle. They are nicknamed the “chicken of the trees.” Anthony Bourdain became a convert after he ate mouthwatering iguana and bull testicles in Nicaragua — although the first time he ate an undercooked iguana tamale in Mexico he called it so “unbelievably horrible” and “like gnawing on foreskin” that he wanted to “jump off a cliff.”
“There’s a big demand now for gator meat and I believe there will be for iguana,” Wood said. “Tastes like sweet chicken. I filet them and make tacos. I deep fry them with the bone in. They’re excellent in stew. You can feed your family. I’ve been mailing gator meat to my Asian customers — they like to make soup out of gator feet because it’s good for rheumatism — and I put some iguana meat in to sample and they really like it.”
Wood pulled a skinned iguana carcass out of a cooler in his truck and handed it to a condo employee, who thanked him, smiled and said, “Delicioso.” Wood also had a Mexican spiny-tail iguana he had caught at another site but he doesn’t recommend the “vicious” species for your table.
“Eventually, people will see iguanas as a good, free source of protein and we could reduce the numbers by eating them,” Magill said. “It’s time for an iguana cookbook.”
Mazzotti said iguana is “one of the best bush meats you’ll ever taste.” You can find recipes at the Eat the Invaders website or Trippy Food. They’re good with mango, squash and cilantro. But iguana barbeque parties aren’t going to solve the problem.
Said Wasilewski: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could buy an island for a gazillion dollars and set them free there?”
Sara Gottlieb just wants them out of her pool and away from her gardenias.
“They like to sit under my lawn furniture and poop piles of poop,” she said. “I slam the door and shriek at them. I chase them through my bald yard with a broom. They’re creepy and beautiful at the same time, but they’ve turned me into a lunatic.
“We can only hope for a harsh winter.”