Iguana tell you a story

COVID-19-related budget cuts may assist the proliferation of invasive iguanas in Florida. Credit: Kenzi via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I saw one was around 1986. It was during my first visit to Boca Grande, an island near Fort Myers. A woman was driving me around, showing off the island, when suddenly something that looked like a mini-Godzilla raced across the road in front of us. It was about 4 feet tall, running on its hind legs.

“What the?” I shouted, alarmed.

“Iguana,” said my tour guide, sounding bored. “They’re all over the island. Major nuisance.”

Thanks to the coronavirus, we may soon be seeing a lot more of this particular nuisance.

Iguanas are supposed to be living in South America or Central America, but the invasive reptiles have been roaming Florida’s roads and suburbs for 55 years. That’s according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which considers them such a problem that last year its leaders encouraged homeowners to shoot them on sight.

Green iguanas were first spotted in Coral Gables in 1965. At first, nobody was alarmed, according to a scientific study published in 2007.

“Over the next few decades, many residents enjoyed watching these large exotic lizards, allowing them to roam unmolested on their properties, and at times even feeding them,” the scientists who wrote the study noted. “By the mid-1990s, however, many residents’ attitudes changed as iguana populations exploded, often becoming a nuisance to humans and having a negative impact on the environment.”

By the time the study came out, green iguanas were “widely established along the Atlantic Coast in Broward, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties, and along the Gulf Coast in Collier and Lee counties.” Some people claimed to have seen them further north, in Alachua, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, and St. Lucie counties, the study noted.

Pet owners who either lost or turned them loose bear the blame for bringing them here. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 aided their spread. As workers piled up fallen trees and other debris after the storm, they inadvertently created perfect nesting areas, the study pointed out. During nesting season female iguanas lay between 10 and 70 eggs at a time, guaranteeing the population will grow rapidly.

Iguanas can grow to be 6 feet long from snout to tail. They are voracious eaters. They frequently climb trees, then chew on them. Homeowners in areas with iguanas have to install wire mesh or even electric fences around herbs, shrubs, and trees to protect them from being eaten. Iguanas have even gobbled up rare orchids at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens in Miami. They also stain docks and seawalls with their pee and poop. They can transmit salmonella to humans through their feces.

They also tend to be good swimmers, able to hold their breath for an extended period — which is why they sometimes turn up in people’s toilets. In 2015, for instance, a woman in Fort Lauderdale called Roto-Rooter to clear a clogged commode, only to hear the plumber scream in terror upon yanking out an iguana. (This is not something that ever happens in another state.)

Their one weakness is cold weather. During a January cold snap, the National Weather Service in Miami put out an alert headlined, “Falling Iguanas Possible Tonight.”

There’s another species on Boca Grande that’s even more destructive than the green ones. The black spiny-tailed iguanas feed on the eggs of imperiled gopher tortoises and their burrows weaken sand dunes.

Boca Grande’s iguana infestation got so bad by 2006 that the reptiles outnumbered the humans 10-to-one. A year later Lee County imposed an iguana tax — the first of its kind in the country — to pay for the services of a trapper. Fourteen years later, he’s still at work.

Nearby Sanibel followed suit in 2010, hiring a trapper named Chris Harlow to eliminate as many iguanas as possible. He’d set out traps and, when he captured iguanas, he’d put them down with a shot from a BB gun. Thousands of iguanas bit the dust that way — 1,267 in 2019 alone.

But as the Naples Daily News recently reported, the economic damage done by the coronavirus shutdown has prompted Sanibel officials to end their decade-old iguana trapping program.

With the closing of hotels and restaurants catering to tourists, the city couldn’t afford the $40,000 cost any longer. The existing contract ended April 30.

You can guess what happens next.

“Iguanas are relentless,” Harlow told me this week. With no trapper to restrain their population, he said, “they’re going to reproduce like crazy.” Look for them to spread all over the island.

That’s a problem for more than just Sanibel residents. Iguanas don’t stay in one spot. They know how to hitch a ride on cars and trucks going over to the mainland. I know this because when I was leaving Boca Grande in 1986, I spotted one clinging to a ladder on a painter’s van driving across the bridge.

The news has been full of stories about how the pandemic stay-home orders have helped make the air cleaner and the water clearer, as well as cutting the emissions driving climate change. The absence of humans, said the stories, had aided the revival of nature.

But nature does not discriminate when it comes to which animals or plants benefit most from a lack of human interference. The ones that eat the most and breed the fastest are likely to be the winners. That’s a good description of the iguanas that — with the help of careless humans — invaded Florida so many years ago.

So in a few weeks, better start checking in your toilets and trees for small-scale T. Rexes, and pray that this winter includes an extreme cold snap or two.

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in January, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently named him a Florida Literary Legend. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.