Iguanas are a common sight along the Intracoastal seawalls from Manalapan to Boca Raton. ABOVE: One suns itself on River Drive in Ocean Ridge. BELOW: A pack of eight on Sabal Island Drive in Ocean Ridge. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star and photo provided by Jimmy McAndrew
Ocean Ridge studies limited plan; some say fix is up to residents
By Dan Moffett
Jimmy McAndrew says he has been tormented enough by the iguanas surrounding his Ocean Ridge home.
They have defecated on his patio. They have torn up his landscaping. And, worst, “They have scared my 98-year-old mother-in-law out of her wits.”
McAndrew’s frustration boiled over after he hired an animal removal company to set a trap in his backyard. When he went to check it, he found a 4-foot iguana sunning himself atop the cage, as if enjoying the Intracoastal view.
“They are disgusting creatures,” McAndrew said. During an April meeting of the Town Commission, he pleaded for help.
“Very simply said, we need an efficient, effective and inexpensive way to eliminate this non-indigenous reptile,” he told commissioners. “There is an epidemic of iguanas in the town.”
McAndrew is one of dozens of residents who have pleaded with the town’s administration for anti-iguana assistance. Ocean Ridge commissioners are listening and are considering a plan to hire an iguana contractor. Only a few South Florida communities have dared to take on the reptiles directly, so expectations are measured.
“You can’t use the word ‘eradication’ because by all accounts they can’t be eradicated,” said Town Manager Jamie Titcomb. “But they can be controlled.”
Beyond Ocean Ridge, complaints about iguanas are rising with their population. The reptiles relieve themselves on Manalapan’s boat docks, stop traffic on A1A in Gulf Stream and startle power walkers in South Palm Beach.
According to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the first known sighting of a feral iguana in Florida occurred in Miami-Dade County in 1966. But the species was flourishing throughout Central America and the Caribbean several centuries before.
Exactly when the critters migrated as far north as Palm Beach County is a matter of some dispute. Most wildlife officials believe it probably was the late 1990s.
Today, iguanas range at least as far north as Pasco County on the West Coast and St. Lucie County on the East. There is not even a guesstimate as to how many are here. The state has collected data on them but hasn’t tried to count them.
The collective opinion among the experts is that iguanas are here to stay and it’s up to the human population to adjust to them — like the other non-native invaders: lionfish, pythons and discourteous motorists from the Northeast.
Some killed by the cold
“Every species has its pros and cons,” says Carol Lyn Parrish, a public information coordinator with the state commission. “They’re fully established now. The only real predator is really another iguana, or a person.”
There is one other serious threat to iguana expansion: cold weather.
During the winter of 2009, an extended cold snap killed untold thousands, sending frozen lizards falling out of trees like autumn leaves. But temperatures have to fall into the 30s for days, and that hasn’t happened since.
Two decades ago, state officials and animal advocates were OK with disposing of iguanas by trapping and freezing them. But then research suggested that dying in a freezer was a painful death and animal ethicists protested.
Today, veterinary and wildlife organizations agree the accepted method for killing them is with blunt force trauma to the head. It could be a blow to the brain with a shovel, or a shot with pellet gun, or penetration with a captive bolt livestock pistol.
The preliminary plan in Ocean Ridge is to hire a contractor who will use pellet guns and trapping to at least put a dent in the population. Two contractors, Iguana Control Inc. of Fort Lauderdale and Wildlife Removal Services of Boca Raton, have submitted bids for the work.
A large orange-colored male is surrounded by a trio of younger iguanas near Lake Ida in Delray Beach. The iguanas likely are part of a colony. Females in a colony, usually at the same time, lay about 50 eggs once a year. Michelle Quigley/The Coastal Star
Debate on what to do
The rapid growth of iguana populations across the state is putting local leaders in a conflicted place, testing the boundary of how far government should be expected to go to solve constituents’ problems.
In Ocean Ridge, commissioners have debated whether iguana control should be the town’s responsibility or that of individual residents and homeowners.
Commissioner Steve Coz said during a June budget workshop that he worried the commission was becoming “a big HOA for the town.” Coz said the town didn’t spend any money to remove whiteflies from anyone’s property during infestations years ago. Why should it be different with iguanas?
He argued the town shouldn’t go forward with plans to hire contractors. Homeowners should step up.
“We’re like an HOA and taking personal responsibility away from everyone,” Coz said. “I find it peculiar because we’re such an independent community.”
Dozens of residents have petitioned the town to act, however — among them former Commissioner Zoanne Hennigan. She told the commission the problem is more than any one homeowner can handle.
“I have iguanas not only in my backyard but in two vacant houses on either side of me that are like iguana breeding grounds,” Hennigan said. “Even if I spend the money to trap them at my home, the two vacant houses next to me are not going to spend any money to do that.”
She said that, unlike whiteflies or no-see-ums, iguanas affect every property in town and raise public health concerns.
“It’s a townwide issue,” said Hennigan. “They bring salmonella bacteria when they poop. They poop all over your deck and your lawn. They’re more than just a nuisance. They’re a health hazard.”
(Wildlife officials dispute that assertion, saying it’s no worse than pet feces.)
Commissioner Kristine de Haseth said if the town does nothing it runs the risk of costing homeowners down the road: “Eventually it’s going to be a property value issue.”
Mayor James Bonfiglio has proposed setting aside $16,000 to hire a contractor for a six-month period to remove iguanas from the town’s public areas and then evaluate the progress or lack of it.
A majority of commissioners agreed — but with reservations.
“You’re not going to get rid of them overall,” Vice Mayor Don MaGruder said.
Titcomb drew a parallel between the iguanas of Ocean Ridge and the pythons of the Everglades.
“They weren’t anybody’s problem,” he said, “until they were a problem that had grown exponentially.”
Iguana facts and curiosities
• State wildlife officials insist that the feces of the green iguana (binomial name Iguana iguana) are grotesque and messy but not particularly disease-ridden and generally no worse than your dog’s waste.
• Confronted by humans, an iguana will nearly always choose flight over fight. Wildlife experts say they know of no reports of iguanas attacking humans or pets.
• Charges that they kill native lizards or other wildlife are unfounded. Iguanas are herbivores.
• Many animal experts claim iguanas have good memories. For example, if you scare one sufficiently with a blast from a water hose, it will remember the horror and is unlikely to return to your yard again.
• Is it legal to kill and eat iguanas? Yes, if they’re killed humanely. Properly prepared, iguana meat tastes something like a blend of chicken and gator. In Latin America, iguanas are known as gallinas de palo (tree chickens) and commonly enjoyed for dinner.
• Do manmade iguana repellents work? Hard to say. A range of products, from granules to liquid sprays, can be found online. Some reports suggest that hanging CDs or other shiny discs at strategic spots scares iguanas away because of the reflective surfaces.
SOURCES: Veterinary and wildlife organizations