LARGO — The iguanas lazed resplendent on a sunny afternoon, luxuriating in a haze of mist. They wound curvy claws through the enclosure grate and bobbed their heads to talk, fanning flappy dewlaps.
File this one under: Did you know?
Many visitors to the SPCA Tampa Bay don’t know an odd little iguana sanctum is tucked out back in the vicinity of a goat and a pig. Most would-be pet parents come to see adoptable dogs and cats inside.
Indeed, 10 green iguanas lurk magnificently in Largo. The reptiles are bulky and spiny, some several feet long. Despite their name, they come in a host of colors that vary with age and temperature. They move with surprising urgency, scuttling to different spots in the structure to feast on lettuce, squash and carrots.
“They’re very prehistoric,” said SPCA chief operating officer Tara Yurkshat, sitting at a picnic table next to the lizards, who eyed us with marbled glares.
Sweet Pea is 13.9 pounds. Big Daddy is 10.9 lbs. Then there’s Alex, Benny, Azalea, Dicky D, Gertrude, Helen Redding, Scorpia Rhonda, and pulling up the rear, Simon CiCi at a petite 3.9 pounds.
The iguana sanctuary opened without much fanfare in March 2020, because, well, the world was a bit distracted. The Gulf Coast Iguana Sanctuary had sold its property in St. Petersburg and needed to relocate more than 20 husky lizards.
Most were former pets, surrendered by people who got in over their heads. Iguanas can be fulfilling for reptile lovers, even bonding with people, but require plenty of knowledge and expensive accommodations. They get real big, real fast. Cuddly, they are not.
Yurkshat distilled the acquired taste when explaining whether SPCA caretakers like the iguanas: “They’re not fond of them, but they’re not not fond of them.”
They live in an open-air structure with edible plants, ramps for climbing and a kiddie pool. Because iguanas have Shawshank Redemption digging skills, the enclosure stretches 2 feet into the ground.
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To be clear, these iguanas aren’t going anywhere. The SPCA never intended to adopt them out in the first place, and now it’s illegal.
Iguanas are a fraught topic in Florida, one of many non-native species including Nile monitor lizards and Burmese pythons considered invasive and harmful to the natural environment. They’re native to Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean and Central America. An exotic pet dealer is thought to have released them around Miami in the 1960s, and they multiplied fast. They’re famous for falling from South Florida trees when the weather cools.
In February 2021, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission named them “prohibited.” It became illegal for most people to own a green iguana, but those who already had them could grandfather in their pets. It’s legal, even encouraged, for anyone to capture and kill iguanas all year.
The SPCA won’t add new iguanas to the enclosure. When they mate, their eggs must be destroyed. If someone surrenders a green iguana to the shelter, it must be euthanized.
These creatures can live up to 20 years in captivity, up against a variety of ailments including metabolic bone disease, parasites and mouth rot. Frankly, they’re known to scrap, pushing each other off ledges.
“Sometimes I wonder what goes on inside their heads,” said Yurkshat.
Gauging animal happiness is always a quagmire, especially in a state overrun with species that didn’t choose to be here. These 10 iguanas, at least, have arrived at a point of stasis. They’re not at risk of meeting a Floridian with a gun, and they’re not wreaking havoc on native surroundings. They sit, they climb. They exist.
Business carried on around us. Big, floppy rescue dogs trotted out of the SPCA building, pulling volunteers. Ducks squawked and gawked from across the yard.
The iguanas blinked, rolling over, falling asleep, suspended in time.
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