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Florida's iguana infestation

The lizards may be former pets or offspring of former pets. And they're everywhere.

Published July 26, 2005

[Source: University of Florida]

BOCA RATON - Allyn Szejko could pass for one of the many socialites in this wealthy South Florida suburb - she's buff, blond and exudes New York attitude - and then you see the bright green iguana tattoo on her right biceps.

Szejko is a wildlife trapper and rehabilitator. But she has stopped going on iguana calls.

There are simply too many of the reptiles in South Florida. Her advice: Deal with them.

"Are these gentle giants really causing that much of an uproar?" Szejko says.

Apparently so.

From the Florida Keys to the northern reaches of Palm Beach County, iguanas are moving into new neighborhoods almost as fast as savvy real estate speculators.

They generally live in warm climates - cold kills them - and the consensus is that they are eating their way northward. One University of Florida professor has seen them as far north as Pinellas Park.

As vegetarians, the four-footed lawn mowers have chomped their way through expensive landscaping, caused headaches for botanical gardens and pooped on the deck of more than one cabin cruiser.

"They stink," said Irv Silver, a 70-year-old Delray Beach retiree who spotted several iguanas sunning themselves on his 37-foot boat. "We don't need them here."

His wife and grandchildren are afraid of the reptiles, he says.

Iguana experts aren't sure how many of the green lizards live in Florida; estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. They get pretty big: It's not unusual to spot a four-footer in a tree or even a six-footer on a seawall.

It often freaks out new residents, especially those from the north or Midwest who aren't used to a 3-foot, spiny, tongue-flicking lizard in their yard.

Iguanas are not native to Florida. Most were former pets, illegally dumped in canals or swamps, or descendants of former pets. Some got big and unruly and escaped from cages. Others may have arrived in cargo ships and escaped, crawling to thick foliage.

The iguanas look more ferocious than they actually are; however, their feces carries salmonella.

They are one of the many examples of exotic wildlife in Florida that thrive in the state's humidity - then cause problems. Walking catfish, Gambian giant pouch rats and Burmese pythons are just a few other examples of nonnative species wreaking havoc in South Florida. In the Tampa Bay area, nonnatives include Quaker parrots (those loud, green birds often seen in palm trees) and Bufo marinus toads (which can kill large dogs with their toxic secretions).

The iguana, however, is different from those harmful species: They don't crowd out or kill other, native animals. And none of those creatures have the sheer geographical range of the iguana.

"The iguanas are here, and we're probably not going to eradicate them," said Kenneth Krysko, a herpetology expert with the Florida Museum of Natural History, who once helped catch 1,000 iguanas on Key Biscayne.

Krysko said the lizards were first reported in Miami in 1964. At some point, they were spotted in the Keys. In the '80s and '90s, iguanas became popular pets, but many people couldn't deal with those that grew bigger than their family dog. Now they are common in waterfront subdivisions in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Bill Kern, an urban wildlife specialist and professor at the University of Florida, says there are a few things people can do to stave off the iguanas. Don't feed them (they'll come back for more). Don't plant impatiens or mango trees (iguanas love those). And most of all, don't try to capture them yourself (iguanas are dangerous when cornered).

"If you try to catch them, they will bite, they will scratch, and they will slap you with their tail," he said.

South Florida residents such as Silver have had some success in eradicating their iguana population by calling David Johnson, a trapper who specializes in iguanas. Johnson has eliminated nearly 400 iguanas from Silver's subdivision. Because it is illegal to release the creatures back into the wild, Johnson either freezes the animals until they die or brings the captured animals to the local animal control office, where they are euthanized.

Wildlife officials approve of Johnson's trapping and euthanizing methods, which Johnson said are a lot more humane than what private homeowners were doing to the lizards. Although iguanas are not a protected species, state animal cruelty laws do apply.

"People were taking their vengeance out on the iguana," said Johnson, who has fielded calls from numerous angry people after iguanas munched through their shrubs, trees and yards. "But the iguana is just being an iguana."

Szejko thinks there is another solution: Ban the sale of iguanas in pet stores. That way, she says, at least no new iguanas will be introduced into the wild.

"This is a human cause for what's going on now," she said. "I want to stop exotics from being imported."

Szejko tells people to call their representatives and county commissioners and urge them to pass ordinances banning the sale of the reptiles.

Beyond that, she tells people not to live in fear of iguanas. Treat them in the back yard humanely, and maybe grow to enjoy them as a unique part of Florida life, she says.

"We are the only state that has these types of ecosystems," Szejko said. "Do we really want this to become what you can get anywhere else in the U.S.?"

--Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or at

[Last modified July 26, 2005, 01:17:10]

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