DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. (AP) — South Florida’s not quite Jurassic Park, but it’s getting close.
Packs of green iguanas are swarming seawalls, roaming yards and parks, and leaving a path of destruction and filth in their wake. Like a shot of espresso, the hot summer sun has stoked activity in the cold-blooded creatures, which experts say may be at record numbers.
“This year is the most iguanas I’ve seen and I’ve been in business for nine years,” says Thomas Portuallo, owner of Fort Lauderdale-based Iguana Control. He says the invasive lizards are out of control with “many hundreds of thousands” creeping around Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
The prehistoric populations are multiplying like rabbits, and causing internet, phone and power outages (barbecued lizard, anyone?), damaging landscapes, levees, seawalls, roofs and patios, and contaminating pools with poop.
“There’s no real way to come up with a valid estimate of the number of green iguanas in Florida. But the number would be gigantic,” says Richard Engeman, a biologist for the National Wildlife Research Center. “You could put any number of zeros behind a number, and I would believe it.”
And the critters have residents steamed up — literally.
About 8 percent of power outages, or 9,200 a year, are caused by animals and birds, says Richard Beltran, a Florida Power and Light spokesman. In South Florida, iguanas are the second leading cause of power outages, behind squirrels. But that’s well behind power failures caused by vegetation, Beltran points out. FPL uses raptor guards and bird diverters to cover 75,000 miles of power lines, switches and conductors at 600 substations, he says. If an animal touches two of the three power lines attached to a pole, that’s when current zaps them, Beltran says.
Grace DeVita, of Hollywood, says she can’t escape iguanas at home or work. A few months ago, internet and phone service at her office went down after iguanas climbed power lines and chewed through cables.
“There was an iguana with a piece of wire hanging out of his mouth,” DeVita says. It took two days for power to be restored the first time, and then it happened again two days later.
DeVita even pulled an iguana out of her toilet after it latched on to a plunger a few years ago. “In one of my bathrooms, my roommate kept hearing something in his toilet and saw something poking its head out,” she says. “It was very aggressive.”
Incidents like these keep business booming for Portuallo, 57, whose fast-growing company helps homeowners and businesses fight infestations. Iguana Control has four offices in South Florida and Collier County.
Portuallo, of Parkland, says homeowners can control the beasties by regularly inspecting yards for iguana burrows, often found next to seawalls, and collapsing the holes and adding dirt. They love to eat hibiscus and bougainvillea, so landscape with plants they don’t care for, such as crotons, ixora and oleander. “Make it known that they aren’t welcome on your property,” he says.
The creatures can grow up to five feet long and are fast on land and in water, making them difficult to catch. They have no natural predators.
If you have a few, live and let live. Ten or more are a problem because populations grow exponentially, he says.
Portuallo says his company humanely and lawfully exterminates iguanas using $1,000 precharged pneumatic pistols to deliver one shot to the head. “We don’t shoot to injure, we shoot with intent to kill,” Portuallo says. “My men are well-trained. We follow all laws in every municipality we work.”
It is legal to shoot iguanas in the head with a pellet gun, stab them in the brain and even decapitate them as long as they don’t suffer, according to state law. University of Florida researches say bashing in an iguana’s head and destroying its brain quickly is the most humane way to kill one.
It’s a crime to drown, freeze or poison iguanas. “When you put out rat poison, you can’t control what’s going to consume it,” Portuallo says. “The animals die a slow, excruciating death, which is inhumane.”
Contrary to popular belief, dogs and cats aren’t at risk from iguana feces.
“Most pet instances are trauma injuries,” says Douglas Mader, a Marathon veterinarian who specializes in exotic animal medicine. “I have seen a couple dozen dogs come in with injuries from getting bit by iguanas or slashed by their tails.”
The species are native to Central and South America and the Caribbean and thrive in Florida’s subtropical climate. They reach sexual maturity in 18 months, laying an average 40 eggs per clutch per year, Engeman says.
Florida’s iguana problem began in the 1960s after the reptiles escaped from captivity during hurricanes and as unwanted pets released into the wild. Cold snaps keep the populations in check. However, South Florida hasn’t seen one extensive enough to make an impact since 2009, he says.
“Florida’s got one of the worst invasive species problems in the world. It is at the top,” says Engeman, who has been doing research on the reptiles for 20 years. He says iguanas were able flourish while biologists were busy studying environmental impacts of pythons and feral pigs.
The public needs to understand the environmental threats iguanas pose, he says. But love ’em or hate ’em, people are fascinated by the creatures.
“They’re just kind of a lounge-y lizards that people like to look at,” Engeman says. “People think they’re just prehistorically cute.”