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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel Monkey

Blog (2009)

October 6, 2009: Nile Monitor lizards are recession-proof*

Thousands of Nile Monitor lizards are living in Cape Coral. The invasive carnivores are found along the banks of the 400 miles of canals in this city of more than 150,000 people. The huge African reptiles have been on the loose since the early 1990s, increasing in size and numbers to become a frightening nuisance to residents. No one is sure how these fleet-footed lizards with fangs and claws got to Cape Coral, and nobody knows how to make them go away.

Some locals say that a pet store dumped an unknown number of unwanted pets before leaving town in the 1980s. At that time, the population of this rapidly growing city rich with development, golf and retirement communities, was 30,000. By 2000, the population of Cape Coral had reached 100,000 and the number of Nile Monitors had increased in a similarly dramatic manner.

By 2003, city officials hired university-based scientists to study the burgeoning Nile Monitor population and determine how to eradicate them. Cape Coral also employed city workers to set out steel traps along the canal banks where the monitors like to burrow. In 2007, city traps yielded 69 lizards. The next year, 45 were caught. During the first half of this year, however, only 17 were trapped.

Unfortunately, this is not because the population of Nile Monitors is decreasing. It is because the population of city residents who call in reports of non-native lizards in their yards and neighborhoods is sharply declining.

Blame it on the recession.

Like many other cities in Florida, Cape Coral has been hard hit by the economic bust and the real estate depression. Residents have moved away, foreclosed homes sit abandoned. The Nile Monitors can now travel unseen through deserted yards. And they do not have to fear teams of trappers or hunters, tracking them down and clearing the canals of burrows. For now, the city is unable to spend the money required to attempt to reduce the Nile Monitor population.

Baby Nile Monitors can be purchased by pet lovers for as little as $30. These aggressive animals are popular in the pet trade because of the low price. However, to house and feed a grown Nile Monitor is very expensive. The species is understandably unhappy in captivity, and dangerous on the loose.

*Michael Kruse, "Just too many lizards to monitor," St. Petersburg Times, June 19, 2009

October 2, 2009: Cayman Islands troubled by invasive iguanas*

Florida is not the only tropical paradise where pet Green Iguanas have become a nuisance animal, living in the wild and breeding wildly. The expanding population of Green Iguanas in the Cayman Islands has reached the level where residents are growing frustrated and demanding government assistance. Reports of bad behavior--pooping in swimming pools, dining on garden flowers, eating up crops of fruits and vegetables--have increased significantly. So have reports of inhumane treatment of these unpopular reptiles, including incidents involving beatings, torture and slaughter.

The Department of the Environment for the British West Indies islands is attempting to educate the public on the complex issue of animal rights versus environmental protection. Green Iguanas are currently a protected species under a comprehensive Animals Law enacted in 1976. The law was intended to protect the endangered native species of iguanas found on the islands. However, non-native Green Iguanas brought to the islands from Central America and sold as pets have been abandoned and are thriving. This non-native iguana species has evolved into an environmental threat.

Local scientists are concerned that the mushrooming population of Green Iguanas will result in widespread ecological damage including reduced numbers of native birds and local wildlife species unable to outcompete the voracious herbivore. Biologists warn that the invaders may contribute as well to the impending extinction of the islands' rare Blue Iguana.

Sometimes called the most endangered iguana in the world, the Blue Iguana (Cyclura lewisi) is a slow-moving, long-lived herbivore found only on Grand Cayman island. The five-foot long iguana is tan or gray with a bluish cast that turns bright blue during breeding. (Males become an electric turquoise, females a softer powder blue.) The tail is not banded and the feet are black. In captivity, these beautiful iguanas can live more than sixty years.

Once abundant on an island without predators and little human development, the Blue Iguana population was reduced to less than 25 individuals by 2002. Habitat loss due to real estate overdevelopment and road building is the main cause of the population decline, but attacks by burgeoning populations of feral dogs and cats has added to the demise of this woefully unprotected creature. Unlike the Green Iguana, naturally bred to evade fleet predators like jaguars and snakes, the Blue Iguana does not swim fast, climb trees quickly, or run like the wind. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's main authority on the conservation status of species, has sited the Blue Iguana as critically endangered with an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

A captive breeding program instituted on the islands has brought the Blue Iguana population up to more than 250. However, it seems that even the endangered native species can be the target of iguana hatred. In May 2008, the butchered bodies of seven Blue Iguanas were found in the botanical park on Grand Cayman where they had been involved in the breeding program.

Government officials have recognized the need to update the Animals Law and prepare an organized effort to control the Green Iguana population while protecting the Blue Iguanas. Since there are thousands of the non-natives living in the Caymans and only a few hundred captive-bred natives, finding a reasonable and humane solution to the environmental imbalance will prove challenging.

*Cliodhna Doherty, "Green iguanas overrun island," Cay Compass News, September 29, 2009; www.caymanwildlife.org; www.blueiguana.ky (Blue Iguana Recovery Program)

September 28, 2009: State Senator proposes ban on dangerous exotic pets*

State Senator Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) has proposed legislation to ban the importation and ownership of pythons and other reptiles of concern. She has introduced the bill due to mounting frustration with the slow pace of official response to increasing problems with dangerous giant snakes and other exotic pets on the loose in Florida. "We need to stop it at the source," Sobel says about the root cause of the invasive animals troubling state residents, especially those living in South Florida. "These reptiles are not meant to be pets."

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson has already introduced similar legislation at the federal level. If such legislation passes, the ownership of Burmese pythons, African Rock Pythons and two other python species, as well as anacondas and Nile Monitor lizards, would become illegal.

There is a strong, vocal, and well-funded pet lobby fighting these measures. Pet industry spokespeople warn that a ban could backfire, resulting in wide scale dumping of snakes and lizards that have suddenly become illegal to sell. Republicans are also hesitant to restrict what they regard as personal freedoms, no matter how dangerous and environmentally unsound. Senator Lee Constantine (R-Altamonte Springs) has suggested banning only the internet sales of pythons instead of the animals themselves. Others opposed to a dangerous exotic pet ban suggest strengthening the current regulations and increasing the fines for noncompliance.

Jennifer Hobgood, the Florida director of the Humane Society of the United States, has recommended instituting a ban on all reptiles of concern. She says that a recent decline in the import of Burmese pythons has been accompanied by an upsurge in the import of anacondas. Pet breeders and suppliers will simply replace one species with another unless all dangerous pets are restricted.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is hesitant to apply any kind of ban, preferring to work with the pet industry to find a solution. The FWC is discussing an expansion of the current python hunt in the Everglades area, adding additional hunters and extending the season.

Senator Sobel does not think this approach is working. Her legislation, she believes, will "turn off the spigot, stopping the flow of dangerous reptiles into the state by prohibiting their import for personal use." If you agree with her, send a letter of support to Commissioners@MyFWC.com.

*David Fleshler, "Florida legislator pushes state python ban," Sun Sentinel, September 22, 2009; FWC News Release: Python control and legislation discussed by FWC, September 9, 2009; Catherine Dolinski, "Wildlife commission to discuss proposals to limit pythons in Florida," Tampa Tribune, September 9, 2009; Catherine Dolinski, "Florida lawmakers could force ban of Burmese pythons," Tampa Tribune, August 10, 2009

September 23, 2009: African Rock Pythons in Miami-Dade (and other python problems)*

African Rock Pythons do not make good pets. Unlike the more popular Burmese Pythons, the African species is not easygoing and shy. These giant snakes can reach more than 20 feet and will eat animals the size of bobcats for dinner. Aggressive and nervous in temperament, the African Rock Python will strike out at humans rather than flee when frightened or threatened.

During the past year, four African Rock Pythons have been sighted within a square mile area of west Miami-Dade county. One of the snakes was a hatchling, one a 2 foot long juvenile, another a female carrying 37 eggs. All were captured or killed. A 12 foot African Rock Python, however, evaded capture. The presence of a hatchling, juvenile, and two adults indicates a breeding population in the area or abandonment by a local and irresponsible python breeder.

The African Rock Python can interbreed with the Burmese Python. Their offspring may be nastier than the Burmese, but these next-generation snakes will be sterile. This is not the fastest means to reduce the python population in Florida, however, since pythons may live 20 years or more.

In central Florida, wildlife officials recently responded to complaints about a “monster” Burmese Python that repeatedly escaped. The 18-foot snake was being housed in a chain link cage in a yard in Apopka. Examination revealed that the cage was not secure, so on September 11, the snake was confiscated from the owner by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials. Media reports estimated that the pet python measured 30 inches around and weighed more than 400 pounds, but these record-challenging numbers were not confirmed by wildlife experts.

In New Port Richey, a 19-year-old man was arrested on August 28 for attempting to sell pythons on Craigslist without the required licensing. The man faces 3 misdemeanor charges. A dozen pythons were confiscated by wildlife officials.

Breeding pythons can be a lucrative business. Baby snakes are popular pets, and the larger snakes can sell for more than a thousand dollars. However, adult pythons are expensive to feed and dangerous to own. Breeders and owners must pay for permits and Florida law requires pythons to be microchipped. In difficult economic times, exotic animal breeders may not sell as many Burmese or African Rock Pythons as they might like. Some may be abandoned in our parks and neighborhoods.

As of September 16, the 13 reptile experts licensed to trap pythons in the Everglades area had successfully captured 24, all Burmese. The python hunting program ends October 31st. There may be more than 100,000 pythons on the loose in the Everglades and surrounding areas, some of them African Rock Pythons.

*Curtis Morgan, "New, nastier python enters Everglades fray," Miami Herald, September 20, 2009; "Wildlife officials seize 'monster' 18-foot python in Apopka," Orlando Sentinel, September 11, 2009; Peter Linton-Smith, "12 pythons seized from Pasco man," MyFOXTampaBay.com, August 28, 2009; Nick Walters, "Is it too late to stop pythons?" Bradenton Herald, August 30, 2009

September 15, 2009: Are anacondas loose in Florida?*

In the 2004 horror film, “Anaconda: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid,” giant breeding snakes give greedy rainforest invaders from the U.S. their due. Like its predecessor, 1997’s “Anacondas,” the film is a fun romp through the subconscious, exploiting the human fear of giant snakes.

For most Americans, such terrors are the stuff of nightmares and scary movies. However, Florida residents have real reason to fear the world’s largest snake. Escaped anaconda pets have been found in the wild Florida, although there is no evidence of breeding populations.


When people refer to “anacondas,” they usually mean the largest species, Eunectes murinus, the Green Anaconda. Green Anacondas can weigh more than 200 pounds. Breeding females are up to five times the size of breeding males. This means the females can reach a length of 26 feet. These snakes are thick, more than a foot in diameter. They are perfectly camouflaged so they can hide submerged in shallow marshes or canals, only their eyes and nostrils above the waterline. A master of disguise, the olive green, black and brown snake blends well with aquatic vegetation.

The native range of the Green Anaconda includes Trinidad and northern South America. These snakes are not native to the U.S. In August of 2004, however, a Green Anaconda was collected from Big Cypress Swamp in southern Florida. The snake is believed to be an abandoned pet.

On the plus side, these snakes will eat Green Iguanas. They will also consume all kinds of birds, fish, mammals, and other reptiles including fellow anacondas. Since these snakes can eat more than 150% of their own weight, a hungry 200-pound anaconda could consume a six-foot, 300-pound human.

The 10- to 12-foot Yellow Anaconda has also been reported loose in Florida. Sometimes such reports are errors since those unfamiliar with giant snakes may confuse anacondas with Burmese Pythons. There are documented populations of pythons breeding in South Florida. Thus, most of the reports of giant snakes recovered or discovered by Floridians and tourists turn out to be pythons.

Anacondas like marshy land, shallow water, and temperatures between 85 and 90°. Florida has everything an anaconda needs to be comfortable, and to breed. It is up to Florida pet owners to ensure that these giant snakes are not given the chance to make the stuff of horror films come true.

*Denise R. Gregoire, “Green anaconda is largest snake in the world,” US Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, February 20, 2009; Jeanne Carstensen, “Snuggling with anacondas,” Salon.com, August 18, 2006

August 24, 2009: African Mamba bites cable guy in Hollywood*

A Comcast employee working outside on Taylor Street in Hollywood was bitten by a poisonous green snake. The 44-year-old man was attacked while leaning against a coconut palm on August 20, 2009. His arm swelled up and his right side became paralyzed. He experienced numbness, tingling, and drooping of the eyelids, as well as additional symptoms of a venomous snake bite. He was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital for treatment.

In order to receive the appropriate antivenom, the victim needed to identify his attacker from photographs. The Green Mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps) is a unique looking snake with glossy grass-green coloring and a bright yellow-green underbelly. Once the Venom Response Unit from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue was notified of the exact species, the cure was administered.

The cable worker is expected to recover. He was fortunate and smart, acting quickly and appropriately. The venom of this African snake can prove lethal. Native to eastern areas of southern Africa, the Green Mamba is a tree-dweller that is venomous from birth. The poison contains potent neurotoxins that are potentially fatal. Bites from this snake constitute a medical emergency.

The Green Mamba is not native to the U.S. The snake that bit the cable worker is an escaped or abandoned pet. Mambas can grow to a considerable size, the Green Mamba reaching 6 or more feet in length. The smallest member of the mamba family, these pretty snakes are normally shy and not aggressive. A diurnal reptile, the Green Mamba only comes down from its home in the trees to follow prey or bask in the sun.

State wildlife officials contacted the people licensed to own or sell Green Mambas in Florida. All the legal pets have been accounted for, including those licensed to residents within a few miles of the incident. Since 2004, nearly 200 live Green Mambas were imported into the U.S. All of these snakes were shipped through Miami, more than half of them brought in by importers with Florida addresses. By law, these poisonous pet snakes should be licensed and microchipped.

Allowing a venomous snake to escape is a second degree misdemeanor. If an owner is missing a poisonous snake, he or she is required by law to report this to wildlife officials.

Residents in the neighborhood where the attack occurred have been warned about the poisonous mamba on the loose. It is unlikely that either the snake or its owner will be tracked down. Floridians can only hope the Green Mamba is not breeding in the wild like the Burmese Python and other dangerous exotic species with growing populations in the state.

*Alexia Campbell and Rafael A. Olmeda, "Mamba bites man in yard," Sun Sentinel, August 21, 2009; Alexia Campbell and Rafael A. Olmeda, "Dangerous green mamba snake still on the loose in Hollywood," Sun Sentinel, August 22, 2009

August 19, 2009: Legal issues and exotic pets*

Florida lawmakers and animal welfare organizations are pressuring Congress to ban all import and interstate transport of pythons in the U.S. by adding the giant snakes to the federal list of “injurious species.” In response, exotic pet industry lobbyists are busy in Washington, D.C., attempting to alter the proposed legislation. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) and the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) have successfully changed the wording of the bill (H.R. 2811) so that only 2 of the 10 python species (Burmese and African Rock) would be restricted. If approved, the watered down bill will allow the continued sale of Ball Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, anacondas, and other potentially invasive and dangerous giant snakes.

Yet, PIJAC and USARK still see H.R. 2811 as a threat to the multibillion dollar a year captive and breeding snake industry that pays their salaries. The powerful lobbyists are also working hard to defeat H.R. 669, the Non-native Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act, a bill that would ban the sale and breeding of all species not native to the U.S. and not specifically approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Exotic pets are extremely popular in the U.S., and recent research indicates their numbers are growing. Millions of Americans now own an exotic animal. However, not all of these pets are legal in the states, counties and cities in which they live. Pet shoppers should not assume that any animal available for sale will be legal to keep as a pet. Local pet ownership laws restrict the kinds of animals allowed. If a pet is not legal, veterinarians may refuse to treat the animal. If a complaint is filed by a neighbor or visitor, the illegal pet will be confiscated and may be euthanized.

In the state of Florida, pets are restricted for a number of reasons. Wildlife may be protected due to endangered or threatened classification; dangerous species pose safety issues; invasive species are a threat to the environment; and some animals are difficult to feed and house, making adequate care a challenge. Permits are required by the state for owners of reptiles of concern (including Burmese pythons, anacondas, Nile Monitors), venomous reptiles, conditional non-native wildlife (including Red-eared Slider Turtles less than 4 inches long), prohibited non-native wildlife (including Gambian Pouch Rats), Class I wildlife (including jaguars, bears, and other large dangerous animals), Class II wildlife (including macaques and caimans), and game mammals and birds.

Pet permitting requirements are not widely understood and the laws regarding wildlife ownership are not widely enforced. The consequences include safety issues, exotic species invasions, animal abuse, environmental damage, and the vast sums of money required to address these problems.

Wild animals flourish in Florida and may reproduce year round. Home to many international ports, Florida is a popular place to breed and deal exotic wildlife. Many pet breeders and dealers operating in the state are not licensed by the federal government. More rigorous enforcement of the federal, state, and local regulations would be one step toward resolving the exotic pet invasions currently plaguing Florida.

*Geof Koss, "Congress Now," www.rollcall.com, August 16, 2009; Jeffrey Kofman, "One person’s nightmare, another's pet," abcnews.com, May 12, 2008; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "Captive Wildlife Regulations" and "The Florida Administrative Code: Freshwater Fish and Wildlife," www.myfwc.com/RULESANDREGS

August 1, 2009: PETA questions Florida’s python hunt as inhumane*

In Okeechobee County, hunters have killed a Burmese Python measuring more than 17 feet in length and weighing 207 pounds. The reptile did not have the state mandated microchip for identifying ownership.

Was the python killed humanely, is what the members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) want to know. The outspoken animal rights organization has expressed concern regarding the methods of euthanasia practiced by the hunters recently permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to conduct a python eradication program in South Florida.

In a letter to the Commission, PETA recommended use of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) Guidelines on Euthanasia. Bludgeoning a reptile or just cutting off the head can be inhumane, and PETA would like the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure a humane death for any animals killed as part of the eradication program.

The most humane method for killing the pythons would be to euthanize by lethal injection. This is easier said than done when the animal is 17 feet long--or longer. So PETA is requesting that the invading snakes be whacked, then hacked. That is, stunned by a whack to the head, then decapitated with a sharp instrument, an AVMA-approved two-step method for killing reptiles humanely. In the state of Florida, cruelty to animals is a crime. This includes inflicting on them a cruel death, as well as unnecessary pain or suffering. The Burmese Python invasion of South Florida is pitting human safety against animal rights, an unfair case of conflict of interest.

*Curtis Morgan, "Kill pythons humanely, hunters urged," Miami Herald, July 30, 2009; "17-foot Burmese Python killed in Florida," UPI, July 31, 2009; "Agency Has Duty to Assure Dumped Pets Not Cruelly Killed," press release, www.peta.org, July 30, 2009

July 20, 2009: Python hunters on the loose in Florida*

A new program to deal with the growing population of Burmese Pythons on the loose in South Florida has been launched with the licensing of volunteer snake hunters in the Everglades. Backed by state politicians like Senator Bill Nelson and state agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the program allows experienced herpetologists to hunt and kill the non-native snakes living and breeding in millions of acres of prime habitat across South Florida.

Governor Charlie Crist requested the program after an escaped pet python killed a Florida toddler in her crib. The estimated 100,000-plus Burmese Pythons on the loose in the state are escaped and abandoned pets and their offspring. These giant snakes are popular pets, but what most owners fail to realize are the difficulties and dangers involved in owning such large reptiles once they reach adult size. Pythons can grow to 25 feet in length and can weigh over 200 pounds.

Burmese Pythons have spread from the popular pet dumping ground of Everglades National Park. They have been reported living in the wild as far south as Key Largo and as far north as Lake Okeechobee. Government officials and wildlife experts are unsure about the extent of the potential range for this native of Southeast Asia. Scientists warn that the giant snake may be able to adapt to the less tropical climates found in northern Florida and neighboring states.

Volunteers have been trapping pythons in Everglades National Park using catch poles and large bags. The snakes are then euthanized. The new python program allows volunteer hunters to immediately cut off the head of any Burmese Python they find. The snake hunters must then split open the belly to examine the stomach contents. Wildlife biologists are studying which native species are vulnerable to python attacks.

Hunters are allowed to keep snake corpses and make use of the meat and skins. The demand for snake meat is small. Python hide, however, is valuable as it is used for luxury shoes, wallets and handbags.

This first phase of the python program will be conducted until October, officials say. At that point, the state may decide to license additional snake hunters. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of the Interior is considering an expansion of their hunting program at Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve to include pythons. Senator Nelson has also introduced a national bill which would ban import and inter-state trade in pythons.

Earlier eradication efforts aimed at other non-native nuisance animal species in Florida have not proven successful. Typically, a species population has reached a level much too large to control by the time the state recognizes the problem and takes action.

At this time, the volunteer python hunters are men from the reptile industry, the same people who breed and sell these giant snakes as pets.

*David Fleshler, "Florida officials want to hunt Everglades pythons," South Florida Sun Sentinel, July 14, 2009; David Fleshler, "On the prowl: Team begins hunt to stop python spread," South Florida Sun Sentinel, July 17, 2009; Brian Skoloff, "Python hunt nets nearly 10-footer," Associated Press, July 18, 2009

July 6, 2009: Iguana trapper publishes cookbook*

George Cera, the trapper who was paid $120,000 a year to rid a southwest Florida island of non-native Black Spinytail Iguanas, has self-published a book of recipes featuring, you guessed it, iguana meat. The Iguana Cookbook: Save Florida...Eat an Iguana features iguana recipes from around the world. Unlike Americans, peoples of other cultures in areas where iguanas are native do include iguana meat as part of their regular diet. The author, however, admits he has not tasted any of the recipes included in his book because he is a self-proclaimed animal lover. Besides, he has a pet iguana named Rusty.

Mr. Cera is no longer employed on Gasparilla Island as the official iguana trapper. Over the course of his two year contract, he was able to kill thousands of iguanas using a single pellet shot to each animal’s head, a method that is considered humane when used by a licensed wildlife trapper who is, presumably, an excellent shot. The iguana carcasses were donated to local crab fishermen, who ground up the meat for use as bait.

There are still plenty of juvenile iguanas on the loose on the island, but the county has put a halt to the expensive eradication program. If the luxury island residents don’t start eating the exotic reptiles in their midst, Mr. Cera’s trapping services may be needed again in the not too distant future.

*"Island’s former iguana trapper writes book,” bocabeacon.com, March 2009

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New book:

Iguana Invasion! Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

by Virginia Aronson and Allyn Szejko

Available at your local bookseller, Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and Pineapple Press.

Book CoverFind out more here.

Click here to view a really cool trailer!