Cerabino: Iguanas warming up to milder South Florida winters

This has been a terrific year for iguanas in South Florida.

If you don’t believe me, ask Brian Wood. He runs Iguana Catchers, a South Florida business that traps the reptiles when they become nuisances.

“It’s an invasion,” Wood said. “We had a big freeze in 2010, and about 50 to 75 percent of them died off. But since we’ve had a bunch of mild winters, they’ve rebounded, and now there’s more of them than ever.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hired a trapper this year to control the iguana population in the Florida Keys.

Iguanas, an exotic species from Central America, South America and the Caribbean, eat plants important to other species, defecate in backyard swimming pools and create burrows that damage seawalls, roads and sewage lines.

They’re also showing up more often in places where they’re not welcome.

That explains the iguana-in-my-toilet-bowl stories we’ve been seeing in South Florida newspapers this year. This is a new phenomenon.

You couldn’t find a toilet-bowl-iguana story last year, and now there’s a trickle of them.

A quick perusal of the literature shows a woman who called 911 about an iguana in her West Kendall toilet bowl in May.

The following month, a man in Key Biscayne posted on Facebook his own encounter with a toilet-bowl iguana, which involved him suiting up in a bullet-proof vest, ski gloves and a gas mask before going mano a mano with the critter.

Then two months later, there was the story about a clogged toilet in a warehouse bathroom in Northwest Miami-Dade County. When the whole toilet was removed, the cause of the blockage, an iguana, was staring up at the workers from the drain pipe.

And just last month, a woman in Palmetto, Florida, posted a video of her neighbor removing an iguana from a toilet bowl with the help of gardening gloves, a net and a cooler.

I probably should have warned some of my readers at the top of this column that they might not want to read this column while sitting in a certain … ahem … location in their house. Oh, well. Too late.

Iguana professionals say the uptick in toilet-bowl iguana stories is just an indicator that more iguanas are around now.

“We killed 25,000 iguanas last year, but only about five of them came from toilets,” said Tom Portuallo, who runs Iguana Control, a pest removal company that works in five Florida counties, including Palm Beach County.

The iguanas that end up in the toilet bowls are ones that wander on rooftops, and find a vent pipe without a protective screen covering the hole.

While investigating the intriguing hole, the iguana falls down vent pipe, which provides the air flow for flush toilets. The falling iguanas either swim their way to the sewer or take the other route which causes them to surface in your toilet bowl.

“You can get a good two-footer in there,” Portuallo said, “and there you are taking care of your business and that guy is looking up at you. That can make you constipated for a while.”

Iguanas who make their way to the sewers don’t last long down there, he said. That’s because they require ultraviolet rays of the sun to survive.

George Cera, an iguana trapper in Lee County, said that green iguanas are more common in Southeast Florida while the black spinytail iguanas are expanding rapidly in Southwest Florida.

“There’s no such thing as a bad animal,” Cera said. “They’re just doing what it takes to survive.”

Besides trapping iguanas for a living, Cera is also the author of the book, “The Iguana Cookbook: Save Florida, Eat an Iguana.”

“They’re fascinating animals,” Cera said. “They just don’t belong here.”

And with temperatures gradually rising, the likelihood of Florida getting regular deep freezes to limit the yearly population gains of iguanas will be less likely.

The trapper Wood predicted that this is one invasive species that is here to stay.

“This is going to be a problem like New York has rats, we have iguanas,” he said.

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