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Iguana hunter: We might as well eat them

MANASOTA KEY

George Cera is a burly bon vivant with a shaved head, a devilish goatee and an appetite for provocative ideas, including one that has been cooking on his back burner for a while now. He is sure Florida will be a better place if citizens start eating iguanas.

"There's one,'' he says, stopping the station wagon in a waterfront forest in Sarasota County. Hunched intensely behind the steering wheel, he aims his trusty Gamo air rifle out the open window and squeezes the trigger.

Pish!

Thirty feet away, the spiny-tailed black iguana, about 2 feet long, drops in a heap — shot through its leathery head. Florida's great iguana hunter sprints to his prize and swings it by the tail into an ice chest.

No need to stop at Subway for lunch.

"Save Florida, eat an iguana'' is his credo. It also happens to be the name of his new cookbook, on sale at, well, a few places so far.

Iguanas, like Nile monitor lizards and Burmese pythons, aren't supposed to live in Florida. They are here thanks to lax federal and state laws regarding the pet trade, and thanks to pet owners who lose their critters or let them go. Now all manner of alien reptiles with no natural enemies are reproducing in the state's southern half as if on a mission to take over Florida. In a matter of decades they are changing the ecology of a place that has taken thousands of years to evolve.

Pythons, which grow longer than 20 feet, are eating alligators in the fragile Everglades — and experts fear that humans one day may end up on the menu. A state-sanctioned hunt commenced recently to reduce a population estimated to be at least 25,000 pythons. For the record, gourmets who have eaten python say the meat is chewy yet sweet.

In southwest Florida, nobody is eating the 6-foot Nile monitor lizards that creep through suburban back yards with impunity. On the other hand, there is no law against killing and barbecuing the homely invaders.

Immature iguanas may look like they belong on a Florida postcard — go ahead and cue up Jimmy Buffett — but they pose a significant threat to the environment.

"They are widespread,'' says Kenneth Krysko, who studies iguanas at the University of Florida. "And there are tens of thousands of them.'' Young iguanas eat eggs of protected sea turtles, gopher tortoises and burrowing owls. As 7-foot adults, they dine on endangered flora that includes the delicate butterfly sage. For dessert they devour expensive suburban landscape plants.

Iguanas burrow under houses and undermine sidewalks. They invade attics and nestle in the insulation. They are now establishing clawholds on the Pinellas County waterfront.

Don't look now, but something large is eating your hibiscus.

Don't look now, but somebody large is thinking about eating your iguana.

"Listen,'' George Cera says, "in Central America, in South America, in Mexico, iguanas are considered a delicacy. We ought to be eating them.''

• • •

George Cera grew up in Ohio, where he used a gun to supply his own vittles. He never met a reptile he was tempted to eat because they were pets he bought by mail when he was 12. The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and gaboon viper were his roommates.

"When I was in middle school the police would come to my classroom and ask for me. I'd say, 'What did I do?' They'd say, 'Nothing. We need you to catch a snake.' ''

He worked in a pet store as a teen. That scar on his head? A capuchin monkey. The scar on his face? A 9-foot python.

"Not good pets. Neither are iguanas,'' says Cera, who once owned one named Rusty. "They require a lot of care and adult males are especially aggressive during mating season. They have big teeth and bite.''

As an adult, Cera worked as a carpenter and as one of those guys who catches opossums and raccoons in people's attics. Five years ago, during Florida's building boom, he moved south for the climate and a construction job. Immediately he saw business opportunities that had nothing to do with hammer and saw.

Florida! Bizarre Land! A Carl Hiaasen novel come to life!

Leapin' lizards!

• • •

He is 41. He smokes Marlboros. His cell phone features the mighty cry of an enraged chimpanzee. The phone shrieked a few years ago. On the line was somebody from the Big Gasparilla Island government in Charlotte County. Somebody wanted to know if he'd help with their, ahem, iguana problem.

It seemed a couple of pets had gotten loose in the 1980s. Now there were thousands on the 7-mile-long island known for marinas, tarpon fishing, rich folks and, increasingly, reptiles. They were eating tortoise eggs. They were eating the eggs of protected burrowing owls. Small ones occasionally slithered through pipes and into toilets.

The iguana bounty was $20 each. Cera set catch-'em-alive traps. Iguanas may be primitive, cold-blooded lizards, but they were smart enough to avoid traps. Cera found it simpler, and less cruel, to shoot them with his pellet gun.

Not everybody was happy. Not everybody said, "Thank you for saving Florida from the lizard plague.'' Someone vandalized his vehicle. Anonymous callers woke him in the middle of the night with death threats. "I hope your children die,'' someone wrote the single father of two in an e-mail.

In a way, he had sympathy for the plight of the iguana.

"There is no such thing as a bad animal,'' Cera says. "Iguanas are just iguanas. They didn't ask to come to Florida. They were brought here. They were let loose by idiots. Now they are destroying Florida. We can't let that happen.''

In two years, he bagged 12,000 iguanas on Big Gasparilla Island. He didn't get them all, and one day he may have to start all over again. After all, iguanas continue to be imported into the country and sold as pets.

"I ended up giving the dead iguanas to crab fishermen to use as bait. But it bothered me a little. It would have been nice to have found another use for them.''

Stewed iguana. Iguana pizza. Iguana tacos.

• • •

Sarasota and Manatee counties might have more iguanas than Democrats right now. They are taking over the waterfront, scampering along bulkheads and basking in the sea grapes. Cera still catches the occasional opossum or rattlesnake in a caller's carport for a fee. But he is also up to his elbows in iguana work down there on the reptile-infested waterfront.

He wears a yellow T-shirt with "Lizard Control" on the back. He has scars on his arms and scabs on his legs from handling live iguanas. The missing fingertip? Nile monitor.

He prefers to shoot at a distance.

In Central America, iguanas are sometimes known as the chickens of the trees. Last year, Cera began collecting recipes for his cookbook. There was no shortage.

"Iguanas are delicious,'' says biologist Meg Lowman, who earned her doctorate studying trees in the tropics where iguanas are plentiful. "Everybody ate them.'' When she became director of environmental initiatives at New College of Florida in Sarasota she began promoting "an iguana in every pot'' for Floridians.

"I'm all for what George is doing,'' she says.

• • •

In Florida, some communities prohibit the discharge of firearms or animal cruelty, but there is no state law against killing an iguana in a clean and efficient manner. Where legal, George Cera goes for a quick shot to the head or spine with his pellet rifle.

Summer. Morning. The air feels as moist as a bloodhound's breath. The fearless iguana hunter is on the prowl. "In no shape or form do I enjoy killing iguanas,'' he explains from behind the steering wheel. "In fact, I'm sick of the mass killing. One day I want to lay down this gun and just do public education. But for now I can't do that. There are too many. We might as well take advantage and eat them.''

He steers off the road near a boat ramp. It's Carl Hiaasen country: The pepper trees are from Brazil, the pines are from Australia and the quaker parrots are from Paraguay.

Cera's sharp eyes detect something in the shade of a Brazilian pepper. Slowly he points the rifle out the car window.

Pish!

Bull's-eye. An iguana from Mexico, third of the day, goes into his ice chest. Enough for lunch.

Cera has written an iguana book, right? He now admits he has never actually eaten one. Today will be the day.

At home he spills his iguanas into the kitchen sink. Like a farmer preparing a freshly killed chicken, he slits them open with a sharp knife.

Okay. Guts out. Now he dips each carcass in boiling water just long enough to loosen the skin. Comes off like a pair of pants.

Next he throws the naked iguanas into another big pot. Turns the heat up to boil. In the meantime, his best friend, Christy Conde, who is visiting from Ohio, begins slicing carrots, celery, onions and potatoes in an expert manner. She is famous for her chicken soup.

She throws the veggies in the pot with the iguana and turns the heat down to simmer.

About an hour later, the kitchen smells like grandma's kitchen.

George Cera starts ladling.

Bon appetit!

Stare at the bowl. Work up courage. Pick up the spoon. Put spoon in mouth.

The broth, everyone admits, is delicious. The meat? Chewy yet mild.

Don't tell grandma. What tastes like chicken isn't always chicken.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A July 26 story about catching and eating iguanas misspelled the name of a New College of Florida biologist. Her name is Meg Lowman.

>>RECIPE

Iguana Stew

Here's one of Cera's iguana recipes:

Remove head, organs and tail.

Dip in hot water and scrape off scales or skin. Practice safe food handling. Iguana, like chicken, can carry salmonella.

3 to 4 pounds of iguana

1 teaspoon salt

3 peeled and sliced potatoes

1 large sliced onion

1 cup lima beans

1 cup canned tomatoes

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup frozen corn

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon ketchup or Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup of butter

Place iguana in Dutch oven with enough boiling water to cover. Add salt and simmer for 45 minutes.

Add potatoes, onion, lima beans, tomatoes and sugar. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until beans and potatoes are tender.

Add corn, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Season with salt and pepper and add ketchup or Worcestershire sauce if desired.

Add butter and stir well.

Serves 8.

Source: Save Florida, Eat an Iguana

TO LEARN MORE

Good eatin'

For information about the cookbook Save Florida, Eat an Iguana, go to iguanacookbook.com or e-mail George Cera at theiguanahunter@yahoo.com.

Iguana hunter: We might as well eat them 07/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 5, 2009 5:50pm]

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