Florida Keys News
Monday, July 30, 2012
Iguanas are invading historic City Cemetery

For now there is only saber-rattling. But Key West officials say they expect to do battle against a growing population of iguanas, long blamed for devastating gardens and lawns, whose latest offense is a take-over of the Southernmost City's historic cemetery.

One internationally renowned iguana expert has noted that iguana meat is prized in some South and Central American nations, though so far no plans for an iguana harvest appear to be in the works.

"We had begun extensive spraying," said Cemetery Sexton Russell Britain. "I suppose they do scare people. We tried a program to catch them in here, the trapper set out traps and he baited his traps with flowers but the iguanas have flowers everywhere for free. The only way to reduce them was either to shoot them or catch them by hand."

Spraying iguana nests has met with some success, Britain said, but not much.

From a cemetery sensitivity standpoint, the idea of green lizards capable of growing to 3 and 5 feet in length cavorting among the last resting places of Key West's deceased is not appealing. Only one family so far has expressed a concern about the effect on any of the cemetery's 60,000-plus graves, Britain said.

Solares Hill resident Mick Kilgos is among neighbors of the cemetery who have been coping with continued infestation. The reptiles have taken to drinking from Kilgos' koi pond, and make noise when they fall from trees to the roof of his William Street home.

"They are aggressive; if you confront them they come at you," he said. "They are over-running the place."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson said the reptiles are not protected since they are an invasive species.

They began to appear in Florida in 1966, increasing their range into the 1990s, when they were first noticed in Monroe County.

Exclusively vegetarian, iguanas, which are popular in the pet trade, originated in Central America. They do not compete for food with native lizards, according to the FWC, and enjoy dense tree canopies near water.

"When startled, this primarily arboreal species often drops from limbs of trees and swims or runs quickly away," the FWC's iguana rundown states. "Babies are bright green, but adults tend to be grayish green and may develop orange coloration ... during the breeding season."

City Commissioner Tony Yaniz suggested breaking out baseball bats during the budget workshop iguana discussion, noting that they are prolific and have no predators.

"Unless we wage an all-out war we are screwed," Yaniz said. "It is going to take the Commission and the county coming together. We can't just round them up and relocate them. It is a serious problem and it needs to be an all-out war. You have to have an igauana rodeo or killing festival."

City spokeswoman Alyson Crean said the lizards pose problems at the city's landfill, known as Mt. Trashmore, on Stock Island.

"We have had to do repair work there," she said, explaining that the iguanas sometimes puncture protective coverings there.

City Commissioner Mark Rossi described the iguana problem as "out of control."

"We are not doing anything about it and we need to do something about it," Rossi said. "It's a health issue and I believe it will come up to the Commission in one form or another soon. At West Isle and at Poinciana Housing it is really bad."

Gordon M. Burghardt, alumni distinguished service professor in the departments of psychology and ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has studied iguanas throughout the world and agrees there is no easy solution.

He would rather not see exterminated iguanas go to waste, and suggests a culinary approach.

"They are eating flowers and maybe produce, so are more of an annoyance than an ecological threat," he said. "In many parts of South America they eat them and they are pretty good. The large ones can be quite good. I have had barbecued iguana ... Some places have an iguana festival, and they sell them in markets and the eggs are highly prized."

jdesantis@keysnews.com

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