Iguanas in Key West and Southern Florida

Dinosaurs didn’t make the cut and man did. Will someone please explain that to the iguanas that are procreating like mad all over Key West and Southern Florida? These mini-dragons are not native to the Florida Keys and the generally accepted explanation for their presence is that they escaped from and were released by pet owners and have successfully proliferated. This officially categorizes these reptiles as invasive; a non-native species that has been introduced into a new habitat and which normally damages the existing ecosystem.

Some people appreciate the iguanas and consider them just one more exotic feature of Key West but the fact is that they don’t belong here. Because they aren’t native, they don’t have a balanced place in the ecosystem. In the Florida Keys, the iguana is sorely lacking predators and competitors to help keep their growing numbers in check. Consider the lionfish and kudzu, which are non-native, invasive species to Key West as an indication of the negative impact that the iguana is likely to have on this small island’s ecosystem. That should be enough to spur you into action.

In addition to the yet-to-be-determined impacts on Key West’s ecosystem, these damn things are a nuisance to humans. They have a strange affinity for defecating near water, which means if you are lucky enough to live on the water you can look forward to scraping iguana turds off of your deck and from around your pool. We once had an aggressive five-footer who was using our beautiful swimming pool as his personal toilet. When I tried to scare him away with a broom, he chased me! Then I was the one pooping by the pool.

Don’t spend a lot of money on landscaping because the iguanas will devour everything you plant. The nasty little bastards eat mangos, tomatoes, orchids, shrubs and trees. In fact, if my yard is any indication, the iguana will eat anything that doesn’t eat them first…which is everything in the Florida Keys. They eat cat food and dog food and even managed to empty my bait freezer after one of my children accidently left the door ajar.

Many residents have taken it upon themselves to rid their neighborhood of these fearless pests. Several neighbors shoot them and use them as bait in crab traps. That used to really upset me and I considered it unnecessarily cruel until I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars to landscape our yard with native tropicals and bromeliads. Within a week’s time, my yard was an all-you-can-eat iguana buffet and left in ruins. After that, I encouraged my neighbors to bump off these nasty home wreckers.

Some people use traps to collect and dispose of iguanas but that begs the question of what to do with them once they’ve been trapped. Because they are a non-native species, it’s illegal to relocate trapped iguanas anywhere in the state. You don’t need a permit to trap them on private property, although Florida Fish and Wildlife requires that they be destroyed humanely. I don’t like the idea of setting traps because the chances of someone accidently trapping a beloved neighborhood cat are too high.

If you don’t have the stomach for trapping or shooting iguanas but you want to get them out of your yard and away from your family, you might consider calling on some local Hispanic sportsmen who call the iguanas “pollo del arbor” or chicken of the tree. Apparently, iguana is the other white meat. Florida Fish and Wildlife acknowledges that recreational harvesting is a new sport but they have yet to set bag limits or restrict methods for capturing these scaly, green chickens. Until then, iguana gamers are free to bag them by the dozen. I strongly recommend hiring some iguana meat lovers to clean up the neighborhood.

The most humane method of getting rid of these beasties that I’ve seen is extreme cold. Well, extreme cold for Southern Florida. Two years ago, the Keys experienced the coldest winter in years when temps dropped into the forties. Everywhere you looked, strange green and brown fruit was falling from the trees. Iguanas are cold blooded and have no internal means to warm themselves so as the mercury dropped so did they; from the trees! It was a happy time for many Keys residents who like me, who aren’t brave enough to kill them outright. Countless bait freezers were stocked full of iguanas that had dropped to the ground and were scooped up to be saved for May when stone crab season opened. Stone crabs love iguana meat.

I’d like to get my hands on the morons that released the first iguanas to their freedom in Southern Florida but I’m only one of millions who feel that way. It can’t be undone but people need to be made aware of the very real, very serious dangers of releasing or allowing pets to escape into the wild. Surprisingly, there still are people who keep iguanas as pets and they need to be urged to spay or neuter them (really, your neighborhood vet will fix your reptiles!) so that if the unforgiveable happens and the damn thing slips out the window they can’t contribute to the already explosive iguana population. If you can’t afford the operation, donate the damn thing to a zoo! Responsible pet ownership is the very first and probably most important step toward preventing invasive species issues.

Unfortunately, iguanas are here to stay and due to their large numbers, eradication is no longer a possibility. I’m an animal lover from the get-go and while I would like to wipe these pests from our state, I encourage you to eliminate them in the most humane ways possible. If you can’t do that, then remember this: iguana tastes like chicken!