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Days of the Iguana in the Florida Keys


Have you heard the one about how the iguana crossed the road to get to the other side? How about thousands and thousands of iguanas? Nights of the iguanas and days, too, as the Florida Keys are being overrun by scaly green beasts darting across highways and devouring shrubbery. And you can't really kill them. Kim Gabel is wrestling with the iguana problem for the University of Florida's Monroe County Extension Service in the Keys and she joins us now. Hello.

Ms. KIM GABEL (Monroe County Extension Service): Hello.

LYDEN: I love the name of your program, Iguana Be Gona.

Ms. GABEL: Yes, that's something I came up--a couple years ago. I've been having phone calls for the last few years of people who are frustrated with iguanas on their properties and what to do.

LYDEN: When did these iguanas appear?

Ms. GABEL: I've been an agent for the last four years, so for the last, I'd say, three of those four years I've been getting iguana phone calls.

LYDEN: I mean, do they come out at night?

Ms. GABEL: No, they're out during the day. They will be in people's back yards, either munching on their landscape plants or sunning on their docks. In some locations they'll even swim in the swimming pools with you.

LYDEN: Ew. Now how did iguanas get to be such a problem?

Ms. GABEL: Well, they've been in the pet trade for a number of years. People get iguanas as pets, don't realize that they can grow to be six feet in length. So some have been inadvertently released by the cages getting open or some people have just released them because they didn't want to have something of that size. And our climate isn't cold enough to kill them, because they are a reptile.

LYDEN: Now are they friendly? Do iguanas, you know, attack people?

Ms. GABEL: They don't attack people. They more are something that, you know--especially as they get bigger--their size certainly puts you ill at ease to see them because they have three ways that they defend themselves. One is if you try to get near to one, they have a tail that they can whip around. They have some pretty nasty claws, and they have teeth that bite. But most like anything, once you're coming towards them, they'd much rather flee and get into safety.

LYDEN: I have to say, in reading about this, one can understand that people in the Keys have a lot of frustration if one of the suggestions to kill them is to freeze them.

Ms. GABEL: Yes. Remember, it's a reptile, so as in nature it won't be able to live in colder climates and it would die back. So, therefore, herpetologists say that that is the most humane way of killing them. But down here the big question, and rightly so: Who has a freezer that's large enough to get something like a three- to six-foot one in there? So the better way is looking at ways of, after it's been trapped, to have it euthanized.

LYDEN: But what about catching them for food? You know, processing them somehow for cat food maybe or something like that?

Ms. GABEL: Well, in Central America and throughout the Caribbean, iguanas are a food source. Now there's different varieties of iguanas. I'm still trying to figure out whether the green iguana is considered one of the tasty ones.

LYDEN: Have you tasted one yet, Kim?

Ms. GABEL: No. The common joke down here is that iguana tastes like chicken. I don't know whether that's true or not, but...

LYDEN: The white meat, right?

Ms. GABEL: Yes, exactly. And more of what people would eat if they were going to eat iguana would be the tail vs., you know, the whole iguana itself.

LYDEN: Maybe you could offer a bounty for captured iguanas.

Ms. GABEL: What happens is there are people who are nuisance trappers who can be able to go out and trap the animals for people, and I always kind of chuckle to myself that could be a business I could start up with the business title being Iguana Be Gona.

LYDEN: Or at least a segment on Animal Planet.

Ms. GABEL: Exactly.

LYDEN: Well, Kim Gabel is an environmental horticulture agent for the University of Florida's Monroe County Extension Service, and she gives a presentation called Iguana Be Gona. Kim Gabel, thanks a lot for talking to us today.

Ms. GABEL: Why thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.