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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get rid of iguanas in my yard?

If you call in a wildlife trapper to remove an iguana, another will soon take its place. It is more effective to make your yard iguana resistant. There are a number of steps you can take to iguana-proof your yard.

  • Exclusion: Install caged screen enclosures to protect your pool and yard. Install electric fencing around your yard, seawall and docks. Use sheet metal guards on trees and dock pilings to keep iguanas from climbing. Keep iguanas off your boat by tying plastic bottles on the lines. Protect your pool deck with childproof fencing. Use wire mesh screening to protect garden plants.

  • Habitat Modification: Remove fruit trees (except citrus, which they do not eat) and flowering plants from your yard. Remove dense thickets, piles of landscape timber and rocks. Trim bushes and trees away from your house, pool, seawall and dock. Fill vacant burrows with cement and sand.

  • Repellent: Spray a protective border around your yard or plants using neem oil or garlic spray. Iguanas do not like the smell and taste of these nontoxic biopesticides.

  • Capture: Special permits are unnecessary for trapping iguanas on private property. However, wildlife must be trapped humanely. Only snares (like noose poles and nets) and live traps are legal in Florida. Traps must be checked at least once every 24 hours because leaving a wild animal in a trap for longer is considered animal abuse.

  • Iguanas are not easy to capture, but during cold spells they do slow down. If you capture an iguana, you cannot let it loose in a nearby park, lake, canal or undeveloped area. To do so is a misdemeanor subject to jail time and a fine. You must either keep the iguana as a pet, find someone who will do so, or arrange to have it euthanized.

    Can I shoot an iguana on my property?

    In the state of Florida, it is not legal to shoot firearms or pellet rifles in cities or suburbs. Most people are not that good a shot with an air gun or a bow and arrow that they can kill a fast-moving iguana with a single shot. If you shoot an iguana with either of these weapons and it fails to die right away, you can be arrested for animal cruelty.

    It is legal to trap iguanas on private property using a humane method, but it is illegal to transport and abandon them elsewhere in the state. See the Laws page.

    Do some cultures eat iguanas? What do they taste like?

    In the South American and Central American countries where iguanas are native species, iguana meat is eaten and enjoyed. In addition to native predators, hunters help to keep the iguana populations in check. The meat of iguanas supposedly tastes similar to chicken but with a gamey reptilian taste. In some parts of the world, iguanas are called "bamboo chickens."

    Why are there suddenly so many iguanas in South Florida?

    The three species of iguana found in Florida (Common Green Iguana, Mexican Spinytail Iguana, and Black Spinytail Iguana) have been around for decades. However, over the past few years, their populations have exploded.

    Wildlife scientists who study exotic species use a statistic they call “the rule of ten”: One in ten exotic animals escape into the wild; one in ten of the escapees survive to establish a breeding population; and one in ten of the established exotics become pests. Since so few (statistically) escape, and fewer actually survive, this slows down the population growth initially. But for those species that do manage to escape and survive and thrive, the gradual swell in population eventually begins to increase exponentially as the number of breeding pairs grows with each generation.

    So, for years most of us did not even notice the iguanas among us. Now we are practically tripping over them. State biologists estimate their numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

    These large reptiles have adapted well to Florida habitat, they breed more than once a year, and they can live 15 to 20 years in the wild. So there’s no stopping them now. Only unusually long, very cold winter seasons can help trim the massive iguana population in South Florida.

    What happens to feral iguanas living in the wild in Florida when it gets cold?

    The three species of iguana living and breeding on their own in Florida are only able to survive in the year-round warmth of the southern areas of the state. They are unable to withstand the colder temperatures which occur on a regular basis in areas north of Orlando. In South Florida, where the population of Green Iguanas was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands by the end of 2009, it took a couple of weeks of unseasonably cold weather to significantly reduce their numbers.

    When the temperature drops down into the 40s and below, something which happens only occasionally in the areas where feral iguanas live and breed, these cold-blooded reptiles become sluggish. Iguanas do not manufacture their own body heat and, when cold, their naturally slow metabolism is reduced even more until they may appear to be in a near-comatose state. If they are hiding in trees, iguanas may fall off branches. They will lie frozen, in a state of suspended animation, and will be unresponsive to touch.

    Once the sun comes out, iguanas gradually emerge from this semi-dormant state. Some will crawl out into the street to warm themselves on the sun-splashed asphalt, only to get hit by passing cars. Others will turn black from the stress of enduring a crisis state. This darkening of the skin will help to increase heat absorption when they return to basking in the sun. If the weather remains warm, the iguanas can recover. But when cold weather lasts for more than a few days in a row, like it did in January 2010, many iguanas cannot survive. The ones that do, however, will breed. This means that the population of feral iguanas in Florida is only temporarily reduced.

    Can we reduce the iguana population in Florida by destroying their nests?

    Wild iguanas dig deep burrows for nesting in sand and soil. At the bottom of these burrows the female will create a small cavern in which she can lay her eggs. Tunnels may connect a number of separate burrows so that more than one entrance will lead to the same nesting cavern. Such shared caverns are usually deeper in the ground and better protected than a nest used by a single female.

    Female iguanas back out of their nest after their eggs are laid. Then they cover the nest with sand or dirt. Different iguanas will use a single nest sequentially. An iguana will return to a nest site season after season. Sometimes the females will fight over ownership of a nest site. Unless such competition is occurring, however, female iguanas do not stay by their nests to guard their eggs.

    If you have an unguarded nest on your property, you can certainly help to reduce the local iguana population by removing the eggs. Be sure to freeze them in order to halt development, then discard or bury. Do not use iguana eggs as fertilizer in gardens with plants you plan to eat, as the eggs may carry salmonella bacteria. Also, wear gloves when handling iguana eggs.

    You can also choose to fill in iguana burrows when you find them on your property. You can use cement if the burrows are located in a seawall or foundation. Otherwise, gravel makes a good filler. Be sure not to fill in occupied burrows as this is inhumane.

    Population control is one way to have an influence on the exploding non-native Green Iguana population in South Florida. Wildlife biologists have suggested that pet sales in the state be limited to infertile iguanas. This measure would prevent future additions to the expanding population but would not address the hundreds of thousands of exotic Green Iguanas on the loose--and breeding--all over South Florida.

    What is the best way to capture an iguana?

    Licensed wildlife trappers typically use a live trap or a catch pole to capture feral iguanas. Trappers are trained how to capture wild animals without hurting them--or getting injured themselves. If you feel you must capture a wild reptile on your property, the best option is to contact an experienced wildlife trapper. Look for a service that specializes in iguanas.

    Do-it-yourself homeowners should stick to live traps. Havahart traps are safe and will not hurt or maim animals. A large trap (32 inches x 10 inches by 12 inches) is best as the smaller versions will be inadequate for the four- to six-foot long Green Iguanas. The large Havahart traps cost $65 to $125.

    The live trap should be set in an area where iguanas regularly come and go, like on a seawall or along a fence line. Bait can include fresh ripe fruit like bananas and mango. (Flowers and greens are fine for feeding iguanas but do not seem to lure them into traps.) Unless you plan to check the trap every few hours, cover the top of the cage with burlap or other cloth to provide shade and privacy. By law, the trap must be checked every 24 hours. It is inhumane to leave trapped animals in cages for long periods.

    Once you capture an iguana, you must take full responsibility for this feral animal. You can keep it as a pet, give it to someone else who wants to keep it as a pet, or euthanize it in a humane manner sanctioned by the state. (To study the sanctioned methods, check the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines on Euthanasia, 2007.) Be sure to wear heavy gloves when handling the trap or moving the animal. As long as the iguana is in your possession, you must feed it once a day.

    If you choose to capture an iguana, do not assume your pest problem is over. Another iguana will be attracted to your property for the same reasons as the captured one, and soon enough you will be setting your trap for the new invader. In South Florida, iguana trapping is a perpetual job, one that may last a lifetime.

    How can I find a wildlife trapper who will come to my house and get rid of the iguanas in my yard?

    Most wildlife trappers in South Florida will tell you not to waste your money hiring them to come try to catch iguanas on your property. It is quite difficult to trap an iguana, and as soon as one is removed from your land, another will take its place. Most Florida wildlife trappers advise callers to iguana-proof their yards instead.

    Licensed wildlife trappers are listed online, in the Yellow Pages, and on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

    Is it okay to feed the iguanas that come on my property?

    Iguanas eat lots of plants, leaves and flowers, fruits and shoots. Some consume insects and eggs. In the wild, they are capable of finding the nutrients they require to stay healthy. You should never feed them junk food. If you are leaving food out in your yard for the iguanas, be aware that you will be attracting other undesirable pests (like rats) onto your property.

    Once you begin to feed the local iguanas, they will come to rely on you for food. They will troop to your yard daily and their friends will follow suit. This may enrage any neighbors attempting to keep iguanas out of their yards. Be prepared to defend your actions. Neighborhood arguments about exotic wildlife are increasingly common in Florida.

    What should I do if I see what I think is a Nile Monitor lizard, a tegu or a Spectacled Caiman in my neighborhood?

    Bring your pets and children inside at once. Call 911 and report your sighting. Then keep an eye on the animal so you can tell the trappers when they arrive exactly where it is located. Do not approach the animal.

    You can report your sighting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on their Exotic Nuisance Species hotline: nas.er.usgs.gov.

    What should I do if I see a giant boa or python in my neighborhood?

    Bring your pets and children inside at once. Call 911 and report your sighting. Then keep an eye on the animal so you can tell the trappers where the snake is located. Do not approach the animal.

    You can report your sighting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on their Exotic Nuisance Species hotline: nas.er.usgs.gov.

    What products can we buy to help us keep exotic pests off our property?

    Neem oil is a nontoxic biopesticide made from the seed oil of a species of evergreen tree which grows in the tropics. The taste of this oil is bitter and the smell is an unpleasant garlic-nut odor. Iguanas do not like either the taste or the smell. You can create boundaries around your yard or garden using neem oil. You can spray your pool deck and dock with the oil to repel the iguanas. Garlic spray may also work for the same reasons. You will need to spray on a monthly basis, more often during rainy season.

    Iguana-Rid combines neem oil with red pepper and garlic. Do not spray directly on plants or the red pepper may dry out the leaves.

    Coyote Pee is another product some users claim will repel iguanas. Animals tend to stay away from territories that have been “tagged” by the urine of their predators. Coyote Pee may keep iguanas out of your yard if you use the product according to package directions.

    To keep iguanas off your roof, try Fly-Bye. The steel prongs are used to protect rooftops from birds.

    Many different companies offer caged screen enclosures, childproof fencing for pools, electric fencing for yards, seawalls and docks, sheet metal guards for trees, and wire mesh to protect gardens from wildlife.

    The best investment you can make is to not buy an exotic pet. The pet choices we make today will help to influence the environment we live in tomorrow.

    Do exotic pets carry diseases dangerous to humans?

    Yes. Not all pets have diseases, and humans are not susceptible to every disease an animal may carry. However, the saliva, urine and feces of many exotic species can prove to be a source of potentially dangerous pathogens. Pets have been known to cause illnesses and deaths from relatively rare diseases such as plague, tularemia, monkeypox, and hepatitis. In many cases, the animals are carriers and do not display symptoms of disease. For example, iguana droppings can carry salmonella bacteria but this does not make the iguanas ill.

    Hands should always be washed carefully and thoroughly after handling exotic pets and the “calling cards” of nuisance exotics. Bites and scratches should be treated by a doctor.

    How can I get rid of my unwanted exotic pet? It was such a cute baby when we bought it, but now I feel like dumping it in the woods (or the lake or the canal) because it has grown too large and too expensive for me to keep.

    Abandoning your exotic pet is against the law. There are a number of better choices.

    See if one of your friends wants to take on the care of your pet. Call the pet shop where you purchased the animal and see if they might take it back (but don’t expect them to pay you for it). You can offer to donate your pet to a local zoo or animal park. Ask your veterinarian if he or she can recommend a new home for your pet.

    Florida hosts Exotic Pet Amnesty Days (www.myfwc.com) in various locations around the state. You can take your unwanted pet to this day-long event and turn it in. The sponsors will give your animal a checkup and, if it is healthy, they will find an adoptive home for your pet.

    Next time you’re thinking about buying a pet, do the research first. Find out how big the animal will get, what it eats, how long it lives. Find out if the animal becomes aggressive when maturing. Pet responsibility can be lifelong. Your choice of pet is an important one.

    So is there a solution to Florida’s iguana problem? Is there anything we can do to help solve the other exotic species problems in Florida or in any other state?

    The real problem is, once we begin to see exotic animals in our parks and lakes, their populations are already significant. If the invasive species population is small, it can be eradicated if attended to early enough. With a large population, however, this becomes impossible unless the habitat where the species is found is clearly defined by boundaries that enable trappers to corner wild animals. Trappers working on small islands or in parks surrounded by busy streets have a better chance than those attempting to reduce a non-native population living and breeding in an undefined area like a neighborhood--or a state.

    This does not mean that there is nothing we can do to help with the exotic species problem. We can certainly become aware of the problem and develop a better understanding of the nature of the issue. We can avoid buying exotic animals and, if we own such pets, we can make sure they never get loose. We can write to our legislators about the exotic species invading our state and ask them for the legislation we need to eliminate the breeding and sale of exotic species as pets. And we can talk about the issues with our neighbors and friends, spreading the word that exotic pets on the loose can pose a serious threat to our fragile ecosystem as well as our health and safety.

    The exotic species problem is also a kind of cruelty to animals, as we introduce foreign animals to the natural habitats of our native animals. This is unfair to the non-natives who belong elsewhere and will be persecuted and killed, as well as to the native species ill-equipped to deal with the invasives who will eventually outcompete them for food and territory. Nobody wins in this situation, except for those who blindly profit from the sales of exotic animals.

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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.

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