When Madison shot out the back door and beelined toward the fence, Kyle Totten knew something was back there again.
Last time it was a small alligator. This time the German shepherd came snout to snout with a 3-foot-long Argentine black and white tegu.
“I grew up down in south Florida, so I’m used to iguanas," said Totten, who lives in the Bell Creek Preserve subdivision in Riverview, "but this was a little creepier.”
Residents of southeastern Hillsborough County say the invasive reptiles, now well established in the area, visit their yards and driveways often. They’ve been spotted crossing streets in Balm and jumping into a man-made pond in Wimauma. One woman said her husband was chased by one while working for a cable company, and retreated into his van.
Ashley Molinaro, who lives in Riverview’s Shady Creek Preserve neighborhood, said she had one practically knocking on her door.
“I hear something bumping, so I’m about to open it but I see from the side window this thing that looks like a baby alligator,” Molinaro said. “He wouldn’t leave for like 30 minutes. Finally some neighbors got a box and moved it. I’m glad I didn’t open the door. He probably would have come in.”
The lizards can reach five feet from nose to tail tip. Though they can deliver a mean bite if aggravated or cornered, tegus are not venomous.
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson said local populations of breeding tegus are known to exist in three Florida counties: Charlotte, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough.
The agency does not currently have an estimate on how many are in Florida. A map created by the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species to track reported sightings shows several hundred tegus have been reported in Hillsborough County.
The Homestead area, bordering the southern Everglades, shows more than 4,000 reported tegu sightings.
The map also shows scattered sightings spread across the whole state, including about a dozen in Pinellas County and 10 sightings in Pasco. The same lizard can be reported multiple times.
Todd Campbell, a University of Tampa biologist and expert on the tegu, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2019 that he believes the Riverview population numbers in the thousands. He suspects they were well established there by the year 2000.
Campbell said that the reptiles were likely first released by irresponsible pet owners or dealers, but are now multiplying on their own.
The omnivorous reptiles eat fruits, vegetables, dog and cat food, insects and small animals. Because of their taste for eggs, the tegu is particularly harmful to turtles, alligators and birds that nest on the ground.
Michael Bartley said when he and his father spotted a 4-foot tegu crossing Verna Bethany Road in Myakka City, his father grabbed it with a towel, brought it home and named it Herman.
“He built a really cool two story cage with a cave, tunnel and ladder for him,” Bartley said. “His favorite were medium-sized eggs. He would stick the whole egg in his mouth, crush it, swallow the insides, then spit out the shell.”
But Herman was too aggressive, Bartley said, and had to be given to someone with more reptile experience.
“Monitoring tegu populations and stopping the spread of this species is vital to conserving Florida’s native wildlife,” Jamie Rager, a spokesperson for the wildlife commission, said via email.
The agency is currently trapping and removing tegus in all three of Florida’s breeding populations. Trapped tegus are euthanized.
If you spot a tegu, you should take a photo, note the location and call the Exotic Species Hotline at (888) 483-4681 (888-IVE-GOT1). The agency has a trap loan program that allows homeowners to trap tegus on private property, with guidance from staff.
Tegus, like other nonnative species, are not protected in Florida, and can be humanely killed without a license or permit at any time on private property or on any of 22 public lands throughout South Florida listed in Executive Order 17-11.
The wildlife agency also runs an Exotic Pet Amnesty Program that helps people find a qualified adopter for exotic pets they can no longer care for, instead of releasing them into the wild.