The ISW is pleased to present this interesting piece about Florida's green iguana (Iguana iguana) invasion. It was written by Angela Comparato, a University of Florida student and up-and-coming journalist, who has graciously given permission for me to post it in its entirety. Thanks Angela!
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Neon green baby iguanas, believed by pet owners to be sweet and small, may soon grow into aggressive, mature adults, whipping about their 3-foot-long tails and hissing whenever handled.
Ownership of the iguana has proven to be a bigger responsibility than expected, and as a result, many owners have released their pet iguanas of different species into the wild causing an ever-growing overpopulation and inundation of unwanted iguanas in South Florida.
Many people may not realize the ramifications, but a certain Gainesville reptile shop does.
“I hate the iguana trade, and that’s why I won’t participate in it,” said Nicol Spann, owner of 21st Century Reptiles.
Like many other pet shops that have voluntarily taken iguanas off the market, this reptile shop stopped selling iguanas four years ago. However, flea markets continue to sell them for about $10 each, Spann said.
The most common is the green iguana because they are often bought as pets. Iguanas appear to be an affordable and manageable pet because they can be kept in an inexpensive tank and only need to be fed once a week.
However, people eventually get rid of their iguana because they can bite, scratch, and whip their tails.
“Too many people buy iguanas and don’t realize that 99 percent of the time they become aggressive,” Spann said.
In addition, 21st Century Reptiles refuses to take in iguanas, receiving about one iguana owner a month trying to unload their unwanted pet to the store. One iguana was left at their doorstep, which they were forced to keep, Spann said.
Instead of accepting them, Spann suggests posting an adoption flyer on the store’s poster board.
The reptile shop would like to help these iguanas, but they can carry harmful parasites.
“Parasites can spread to the entire population of the reptiles in the store before I even know it’s there,” Spann said.
While parasites can cause problems, the biggest concern with iguanas is salmonella, a bacteria found in the intestines that can cause food poisoning, said William Kern, assistant professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.
Any environment containing iguana feces has potential for infectious bacteria, Kern said.
The iguana trade can also be destructive to the environment.
“This is true not only in Florida but also in the home countries where they are taken from,” Spann said. “Removing them from the ecosystem allows certain plants to grow rampant.”
As a result, the biological balance is being thrown off in Mexico, Central America and South America where the iguanas originate.
Kern said there has been no survey conducted to estimate the number of iguanas in Florida, but the already large number is increasing.
These exotic pets are able to thrive because Florida has a subtropical climate.
Iguanas inhabit Monroe, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Collier, Lee, Sarasota and Pinellas Counties and are spreading to more coastal, central Florida counties, Kern said.
The overpopulation of the iguanas is wreaking havoc on the environment among the plants they feed on, including hibiscus, which is their favorite food.
“They will completely strip an entire tree,” Kern said. In addition, iguanas will eat valuable ornamental plants.
“If you’ve been babying an orchid, waiting for it to bloom, and then you come in, and it’s gone, you would get pretty mad,” Kern said.
Iguanas are also a threat to plants that are in danger of extinction.
The black spiny-tailed iguana feeds on the endangered curacao bush, said Kenneth Krysko, herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
Krysko said no one, including the state, is doing anything to control this problem.
“I find it funny that the state will fund millions of dollars if a small fruit fly is found in an orchid, yet when there is document of a reptile feeding on an endangered plant species, they don’t do anything,” Krysko said.
The iguanas could be controlled. However, the law protects the green iguana because it is listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which ensures that international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Green iguanas are listed by CITES because of their importance to the pet trade.
Another obstacle in controlling the iguana overpopulation is public resistance of animal conservation groups that have a moral objection to the killing of these animals even though they are acting as pests, Kern said.
However, many botanical gardens are under financial pressure to control the iguanas because they are doing substantial damage to their plants.
“Do we risk the loss of potential clients by killing the iguanas, or on the other hand, do we risk the destruction of valuable plant collections if the iguanas are not controlled?” Kern said.