NAME THIS CREATURE: A legally-protected species, this reptile grows in length up to one foot per year, uses its tail whip as primary weapon but yields razor sharp teeth and claws, may charge to attack during breeding season or when provoked, and lives in South Florida.
HINT: It’s not an alligator.
ANSWER: It’s an iguana.
The common green iguana (Iguana iguana) , the Mexican spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura pectinata) and the black spiny-tailed iguana (C. similis) now roam the Everglades. Perhaps it was inevitable in South Florida, a prominent destination in the exotic pet trade. But it is unquestionable that due to the recklessness of pet owners, iguanas are eating the South Florida landscape and littering our yards, canals and parks with piles of odiferous (and salmonella-laden) waste. See Smithsonian.
Perhaps even more dangerously, iguanas burrow into our seawalls and levees, creating the potential for lost flood control capabilities. Imagine the environmental catastrophe that could be caused by a few well-placed, deep-burrowing iguanas on the Lake Okeechobee dike. (Fortunately, state and federal agencies are aware of this problem and budget funds for preventative efforts and inspections.)
While raccoons, snakes, birds, cats, and dogs prey upon juvenile iguanas, serious predators to the creatures disappear as they grow and age. Hunting opportunities in urban South Florida are strictly limited, and only a small (and stupid!) handful of otherwise agile adult iguanas will be caught swimming near an alligator. Moreover, with wild reproduction at rates of 20-70 eggs per clutch, the potential supply of iguanas is enormous. (Perhaps one day we will realize an unexpected benefit of the invasion, because Iguana meat is a culinary delicacy that makes a nice soup.)
Despite explosive population growth, iguanas are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. CITES lists iguanas in Appendix II as “not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.” In other words, due to some pet owners, laws were needed to protect iguanas, and now, due to other pet owners, our laws are confronting an overabundance too.
Indeed, when these problems are considered together with the explosion of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, the necessity of changing our laws and regulations proves inescapable. Through the Non-Native Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act, a few brave members of Congress finally proposed to regulate the exotic pet industry. Reintroduced
in January 2009, H.R. 669 sought to prohibit the import of a non-native species, at least until a scientific assessment approved the importation. The bill also contained an exception to ensure that it did not reach domestic and farm species such as cats, cows, chickens, dogs, donkeys, duck, goat, goldfish, horse, llama, mules, pigs or hogs, rabbits or sheep, “or any other species or variety of species that is determined by the Secretary to be common and clearly domesticated.”
Despite the exception – and the obvious need to change the status quo – the pet industry (a $51 billion dollar industry) lobbied furiously in opposition. A PetSmart press release, for example, offered a tepid statement of support for “the underlying premise of the proposed regulation” yet said it would adversely affect owners of gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs and warned of “mass euthanasia.” Even if such preposterous results were intended (and of course, they were not) a solution to such a flaw might have been to expand the list of exempt species, or to create a list of species pre-approved for importation.
The legislative efforts, however, plainly focused on killing the bill. Recently, a blog friendly to the pet industry declared victory, quoting a Capitol Hill staffer to say that "I haven't seen a letter writing campaign like this in 30 years! You should be proud of yourselves."
But from a logical perspective, the arguments in those letters were deeply flawed. Embracing the precautionary principle, H.R. 669 prohibited imports until approved as not causing “harm to the economy, the environment, or other animal species or human health.” Yet the pet industry railed at this provision, demanding “sound scientific data” to justify any regulation. Shouldn’t that principle apply to PetSmart? Shouldn’t we have data (besides a profit-loss statement) to understand potential consequences of importing species to places where they lack predators?
The bottom line, however, is that the industry has probably “won” and killed the bill. But iguanas (and pythons) are still killing what we once knew as South Florida. The rights of individual property owners – here, pet owners – again have trumped the rights of the community. “High prices have been housebroken,” the PetSmart advertisements told us, and now our ecosystems have been broken, too. Keith Rizzardi is a board certified administrative lawyer, and publishes The ESA Blawg, a law blog discussing the Endangered Species Act.
Image: Iguanas frequently choose to create their burrows in areas affecting South Florida’s flood control systems. The photo above, from the South Florida Water Management District, shows twelve iguanas nesting along the C -7 canal near Land Shark Stadium.