Florida’s Iguana Crisis

Living through a reptilian plot to wreak utter havoc

DAVIE, FL - JULY 08:  An Iguana is seen July 8, 2008 in Davie, Florida. Because of the rapid spread ...
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Sara Merkin
Population Control

For years I’ve been dodging lizards while I walk down the sidewalk. They skitter across the cracked cement, racing from one patch of grass to the next. I’m used to it. In Florida, lizards are like New York City rats. They find ways to sneak their scrawny little bodies into your home. And they have the chutzpah to obstruct your path. As a species, the lizards decided that the best time to relocate is exactly when a human walks by. What happens next is usually an impromptu display of ballet, petit allegro tiptoes across the sidewalk to avoid them.

The lizard is Florida’s No. 1 nemesis. Aside from hurricanes. And crocodiles. And humidity. Anti-vaxxers. The media. Old people driving. Florida men. Tampa. Yeah, lizards are up there.

But the dance of evading the commonplace puny lizards doesn’t compare to the terror their big brothers have wrought on the Florida population. Iguanas found their way to Florida in the 1960s and thought, this looks like a nice place to destroy.

In 2018, they did just that.

“Iguanas are Falling Out of Trees in Florida Because It’s So Cold. Please Don’t Pick Them up.” The Washington Post, January 4, 2018.

In 2018, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deemed the fourth-hottest year that the Earth had ever experienced, Floridians encountered a problem they never had before: an iguana surplus. The natural life progression for iguanas is: bask in the sun, chill in trees, eat bugs, and freeze and fall out of trees when temperatures drop. Some iguanas die from frostbite or from the accompanying tumble. Others survive and live to repopulate. Weather is one of their primary predators. But, in 2018, Florida didn’t have its usual winter of 60-degree weather and a soothing breeze. The iguanas didn’t freeze that year — instead, they went about their lives and laid eggs everywhere.

Floridians were astounded by the coverage of the event. Pam Gross, a retired English teacher said she was convinced the iguanas were pretending. “When you go near them to check if they’re dead, they’ll flip over and stare at you and then slink up a tree, laughing at you.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) identified the invasive species as the green iguana. Despite the name, the reptile can be green, brown, orange, or a mix of colors. Their life span is up to 20 years, and their growth span is up to 5 feet. The species arrived in the 1960s from South America when an exotic pet dealer decided to let over 300 of them loose in Miami. Since then, they’ve made their way up the coast, likely due to breeders and the impressive fertility of female iguanas, who dig extensive tunnels in which they lay up to 80 eggs at a time. These tunnels often destroy sidewalks, canal banks, building foundations, and more. Although iguanas aren’t a substantial threat to people, being herbivores with low interest in anything that doesn’t taste like the color green, they do pose a massive threat to our surroundings.

And so the Iguana Crisis began. Iguanas took to the streets, making it hard for people to drive. They sunbathed on roofs and invaded local farms to munch on crops. They pooped everywhere. Gone were the days of lizards running across the sidewalk. Now, an iguana stood in your way, and it was not going to move.

The FWC took the only reasonable action it could. They put out a statement that read, “Homeowners do not need a permit to kill iguanas on their own property, and the FWC encourages homeowners to kill green iguanas on their own property whenever possible.”

It was an iguana slaughter spree.

July 2018: Gathering of the iguana council to decide how to move forward with the destruction of Florida. (Sara Merkin)

“Florida researchers are bashing in the heads of invasive iguanas in a bid to get rid of the pesky reptiles.” The Daily Mail, March 12, 2018.

In June 2018, the Sun Sentinel published a list of “Expert Tips on How to Control Iguanas,” based on an interview with the owner of an iguana pest-control company. He offered tips such as collapsing iguana tunnels, never feeding the beasts, and putting up screens around foliage. Perhaps the most absurd half-suggestion was to hang CD-ROMS to scare away the iguanas. Ultimately, the best advice was to leave it to the professionals.

“Stunned Florida Man Finds Bright Green Iguana In Toilet, Calls 911.” CBS Miami, March 15, 2019.

My mother’s best friend Leah heard a noise coming from her kitchen. At first, she thought it was one of her four kids. But this sounded different from the usual racket that filled Leah’s house. This was a rapid, distressed, scratching sound.

Contractors had been in and out all day, renovating her daughters’ bedroom. The front door had likely been wide-open for at least two hours straight. And now there was a scratching sound. Leah’s husband Patrick was at work, so she decided to go downstairs and investigate the noise herself.

She screamed when she saw it: a 4-foot-long, dragon-like iguana wandering around her kitchen. It sat on her marbled tile, scratching at the glass sliding doors, unable to understand that it was not outside. Leah ran out the front door and slammed it shut behind her, before realizing that she had now left the iguana to run around her house, unsupervised. She crept back inside and called my mother, spluttering through her fear.

My mother tried to call animal control, but it was a Sunday. No one was answering. Nothing was open. They would have to face the beast alone. With a deep breath and a deep-seated savior complex goading her, she walked over to Leah’s house and found her standing on the kitchen table with a pool skimmer. My mother went around back and opened the door that separated the kitchen from Leah’s lakeside backyard. The iguana didn’t move, apparently still incapable of grasping the difference between the indoors and outdoors.

Eventually, the intruder trotted back outside as if nothing happened and, I assume, returned to its regular reptilian lifestyle. Sometimes I wonder if that was the most exciting moment of its life. I hope it was.

“Florida residents urged to kill iguanas ‘whenever possible.’” The Guardian, July 4, 2019.

There was an iguana living in our roof. It had burrowed a hole between the tiles and comfortably settled in. Our neighbor — a middle-aged doctor who liked to whip out his gun every few days and shoot iguanas that were encroaching on his home garden — offered to take care of our iguana a few times. It was a hard pass on our part; we found it easier to ignore the problem.

After a few months, around mid-March, a storm caused a bad leak in our house. A roofer discovered a hole in our garage ceiling that led outside. “Must’ve been a ‘guana,” he said, “but I looked in the gar-age and didn’t see nothing. It probably ran to some other roof.”

A few days later, as my dad was moving boxes out of the space for Passover, he heard a loud HISSSSS. It sounded like an angry raccoon that had been kicked out of a garbage can. He jumped back. The iguana sat there on the floor, glaring at him. It must have been starving, trapped in the garage with nothing to eat since the roofer had patched up the hole.

My dad backed away slowly and retreated inside the house for an hour. By then, he assumed, the iguana would have already left the garage to find food and inhabit a new roof. But when he went to check again, it was still there. It looked dead. Did I scare it to death by opening the garage? my dad wondered. He poked the iguana with a stick to see if it would move. It did not.

Relieved, my father joked to me, “The only thing worse than an iguana in your garage is a dead iguana in your garage.” He continued to lug the Passover boxes inside. When he came back out again, the iguana was gone.

To this day, I wonder if the iguana froze in fear, or if it was smart enough to play dead. But my dad has made peace with it. “I like to picture him sunbathing in the Everglades these days,” he said.

July 2019: The iguana that was living in our roof. He looks like he should be named Jeremiah. (Sara Merkin)

“Florida Man Hunting Iguanas Misses and Shoots nearby Pool Guy Instead.” Newsweek, July 10, 2019.

Things were getting out of hand.

“If You’re Killing Iguanas in Florida, Do it in the ‘Kindest Manner Possible,’ PETA Says.” The Wenatchee World, July 16, 2019.

Working with 18 toddlers as a head camp counselor was hard enough in the summer heat. It didn’t help that there was an iguana that liked to stroll around the camp’s playground. The kids went crazy for it. Each time they saw it, it was like they were meeting a dog from Paw Patrol. They would take turns reaching out to touch it, jumping away, and racing to the other side of the yard, shrieking.

By this time, around the peak of summer 2019, the FWC had retracted its initial statement. It was now suggesting that only professionals should be tackling the iguanas. FWC commissioner Rodney Barreto said:

Unfortunately, the message has been conveyed that we are asking the public to just go out there and shoot them up. This is not what we are about; this is not the ‘wild west.’ If you are not capable of safely removing iguanas from your property, please seek assistance from professionals who do this for a living.

Back at camp, we called in the gardener, who sauntered in wearing dirt-covered overalls and combat boots. He pulled on thick gloves and grabbed his metal pitchfork, the iguana squarely before him. It was a big one, the size of a skunk. The gardener used the pitchfork to nudge it over to the side of the building, as the kids watched in awe; they had never seen anyone this brave. My co-counselor shepherded them back inside, while I followed the gardener out of the kids’ sight. Facing off against the iguana like they were in a boxing ring, he raised the pitchfork high, approached the beast, and, with one swift movement, impaled the weapon through the iguana’s neck. I couldn’t look away.

“It’s the most humane way to kill ‘em,” the gardener told me. He wrapped the body up in newspaper, put it on some ice, and stuck it in his trunk. “My friend uses ‘em to make shoes. Would sell ‘em for meat, but he’s kosher like you, so he can’t eat ‘em.”

“Too bad,” I said.

“Out cold: unseasonal temperatures litter south Florida with stunned iguanas.” The Guardian, January 22, 2020.

By the winter of 2020, the weather had stabilized, and the Iguana Crisis was under control. The green iguana population had finally reached a normal level. As the air chilled, the creatures resumed their tree-freezing routine.

The media covered this event like it was a Category 5 hurricane. Articles came out about the “dangerous” iguanas that were falling from trees and hitting people. Nowadays, I spot an iguana once every few weeks. While the population took a hit over the past few years, they’re still around. I’m sure they’ll bounce back. They always do.

“Florida Man Fills Car Up with Frozen Iguanas: They Wake Up.” FM 101.9, January 23, 2020.

Sometimes, when I walk on the restaurant-lit New York City streets at night and a rat runs by, I wonder if it would win in a fight against an iguana. Maybe the iguana would sit there, staring down the rat, like it would a car on the road. Maybe the rat would jump at it, only to be swatted by the beast’s long tail, flung across the pavement. Maybe the iguana would just walk away.

“Invasive iguanas are popping out of South Florida toilets.” Anchorage Daily News, October 22, 2021.

Sometimes when I see the rats, I miss home. Sometimes when I’m at home, I see the lizards and I miss the rats. Sometimes, instead of sashaying around the lizards, I trip on their tails and I wonder, what the fuck is wrong with Florida.

Sara Merkin is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at The New School. She spends her days searching for library holds and running the Jewish satirical news outlet The Schmear.