By Joe Capozzi
Air rifle in hand, the hunter spotted his target on a tree branch over the shoreline some 30 yards south of the Briny Breezes marina.
It’s the kind of shot Joshua Smith has made countless times in his four years as an iguana trapper with Nexus Nuisance Animal Services. But on this sunny May afternoon, his crafty target sensed danger.
As Smith approached, the bright green lizard slithered up the branch and out of the trapper’s jurisdiction.
“He’s no longer on (Briny Breezes) property,’’ Smith said, conceding momentary defeat.
His disappointment wouldn’t last long. By the end of the week, he would bag a dozen iguanas in the common public areas at Briny Breezes. It was a modest haul compared with the 100 he dispatched from a community west of Boca Raton, but they’re all part of a seemingly endless bounty for hunters.
Using an all-terrain vehicle and an air rifle, Joshua Smith pursues a green iguana in Briny Breezes, near the Intracoastal Waterway. LOWER RIGHT: Smith later used a long pole and snare to capture this juvenile, which he estimated was a year old.
Across South Florida, suburban areas have been under siege from the invasive green iguanas, creatures native to the Caribbean and first reported in Florida along the southeast coast in the 1960s.
The lizards, which have no known domestic predator, are free to multiply and grow from finger-length hatchlings to bulls the size of small alligators. Their appetite for foliage, flowers and vegetables has turned residential walkways, swimming pools and golf courses into iguana-size Jurassic Parks.
Beyond what’s visible, Ocean Ridge Town Manager Tracey Stevens said, “iguanas pose a threat to the town’s infrastructure, as they dig burrows that erode and collapse sea walls, sidewalks, foundations, berms and canal banks.’’
“They cause damage to landscape vegetation which is important to maintain in an effort to battle the heat island effect which contributes to sea level rise.’’
Ocean Ridge has had a removal contract for town property with Tom Portuallo’s Iguana Control since 2018, and the $19,200-a-year deal is money well spent considering the millions of dollars in damage the critters can cause if left unchecked.
“They’re like ants, rats and roaches. They’re everywhere. They’re here to stay,’’ Portuallo said.
There’s also the problem of iguana poop. It’s everywhere, too, and it’s been known to transmit the infectious bacterium salmonella to humans who inadvertently come into contact with it.
And there’s evidence indicating iguanas are posing a threat to native and endangered species of tree snails and nickerbean, which is a host plant of the endangered Miami blue butterfly.
“It will be a forever problem, really,’’ said Portuallo, who launched his company 14 years ago. “What we try to do is control them.’’
Controlling the “forever problem” is the shared mission of dozens of trapping companies that have set up shop in recent years, from Iguana Snipers and Iguana Police to The Iguana Guy and Iguana Busters, which also lets the public (for a fee) accompany its trappers on iguana hunts.
At Iguana Control, business is so brisk that Portuallo is about to launch a sister company. In June, Iguana Chum will offer fishing bait made from the thousands of lizards bagged by Iguana Control’s trappers from Key West to Jensen Beach.
Like all nonnative reptile species, green iguanas are not protected in Florida except by anti-cruelty laws and can be humanely killed on private property, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“I know they didn’t choose to be here, but they can cause a lot of damage and can end up costing people a lot of money,’’ Smith said.
Briny Breezes hired Smith’s Nexus Nuisance Animal Services for one week in May to get a handle on “our small but growing iguana problem,’’ said Michael Gallacher, general manager of Briny Breezes Inc.
It’s the first time the co-op has hired an iguana trapper.
“We have been lucky, as many waterfront communities are overrun by these animals,’’ Gallacher said in an email to shareholders in May.
But with more and more iguana sightings along the town’s riprap sea walls, it’s important for the corporation “to eradicate this issue before these animals take over and cause further damage,’’ he said.
Smith said his fees can range from $50 to $200 per visit.
Knowing that a female iguana can lay up to 100 eggs, “it pays to eliminate them as soon as possible before the area along our sea wall is infested with these reptiles,’’ Gallacher said.
Other coastal municipalities from Boca Raton to South Palm Beach say they don’t have a problem with the reptiles and do not contract with iguana removal companies.
Humane killing legal, but not easy for hunters
Smith and Portuallo said their companies humanely and lawfully exterminate iguanas with pellet shots to the head or neck from air rifles.
But it’s not always a turkey shoot. Iguanas are skittish and agile, posing a challenge for some hunters.
“They can run, they can climb, they can swim, they can hold their breath underwater,’’ Iguana Control trapper Alejos Serna said as he patrolled the trees near the parking lot of Oceanfront Park one day last month.
“The only thing they can’t do is fly, and thank God for that,’’ he added.
The largest ones — they can grow up to 6 feet from head to tail — will put up a fight.
“If you corner one the wrong way, they’ve got a very strong tail they can whip you with,’’ Smith said. “Their nails are very sharp and their teeth are even sharper. I have been bitten, scratched, whipped with the tail more than I would like to admit.’’
Perhaps most vexing, trappers say, is that iguanas are not dumb.
As trappers make their rounds, iguanas seem to wise up and attempt to avoid them, even at distances at which they otherwise wouldn’t budge if a walker or jogger approached.
As a result, Portuallo and Serna said, trappers sometimes take different routes on patrols of the same locations or even cover their trapper uniforms with raincoats.
“It’s like he knows who I am and saw me coming,’’ Smith said after watching the iguana skip town up the tree branch and out of Briny Breezes.
Walking toward the north end of the Briny Breezes marina, Smith ran his fingers along bright hibiscus blooms. “This is their favorite food,’’ he said. “This tells me the problem here isn’t too bad.’’
A few minutes later, he noticed something on the sea wall behind an Ibis Drive home. Upon closer inspection, the suspected iguana turned out to be a harmless mermaid, a statue sunbathing in front of Darlene Lozuaway’s mobile home.
“That’s not an iguana. You leave her right where she’s at,’’ Lozuaway said with a friendly laugh as she watched Smith from her back porch.
Smith was voicing surprise about the town’s slim-to-none iguana pickings over the past hour, about to call it a day, when he spotted a bright green target on the sea wall along Flamingo Drive.
It wasn’t very big but it was an iguana. To avoid posing danger to homes behind the sea wall, Smith chose not to use the air rifle.
He grabbed a 21-foot extension pole with a fishing-wire snare at the end. The iguana seemed oblivious to the noose brushed against its head and then looped around its neck.
Smith gave a quick yank, and the lizard flipped and flailed as he reeled it in, the first of 12 iguanas the trapper would bag in Briny that week.
“Smallest one I’ve seen here,’’ he said. “It’s more fun with the big ones. They put up more of a fight.’’
He hogtied the front and rear feet with tape and laid the iguana in the bed of his white Chevy Silverado, right next to a cage containing a large bull snagged a few hours earlier west of Lake Worth Beach.
Both iguanas would be taken home, humanely killed and sold to customers who use them as food, Smith said.
Nearly 6 feet long, with the telltale orange color of an adult male displaying its dominance to competing males, the bull iguana dwarfed the small green one. But it represented one fewer iguana for Briny Breezes to worry about.
Besides, Smith said before cleaning up with a disposable wipe, size doesn’t matter when it comes to eradicating iguanas.
“That,’’ he said, gesturing from the hogtied green lizard to the spiky orange bull, “will grow into that.’’
Here are steps residents can take to deter green iguanas from frequenting their property, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:
• Remove plants that act as attractants.
• Fill in holes to discourage burrowing.
• Hang wind chimes or other items that make intermittent noises.
• Hang CDs that have reflective surfaces.
• Spray the animals with water as a deterrent.