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The Lizard King

On a quiet Island on Florida's Gulf Coast, one man wages a tireless battle against a particularly pernicious (and tasty) species of invasive reptile.

BY GRANT STODDARD

“ THERE’S A JUVENILE MALE HALFWAY UP THAT STRANGLER FIG,” says animal control professional George Cera as he brings his golf cart to a stop and points into a grove of trees. I follow Cera’s finger but once again fail to see what he’s zeroed in on. With clinical swiftness, he uses a single pellet to dispatch the lizard, which is about the size of a professional-scale football. We walk over to find a lifeless ctenosaura similis or spiny-tailed black iguana.

“I kinda hate to do this,” he says as sweat beads on his sun-reddened pate. “But it’s a manmade problem, and trying to stop it from getting even more out of control is just the right thing to do.”

The stocky, 275-pound Cera places the animal in a cooler with two others he corralled earlier with similar deftness.

“Gettin’ hungry?” he asks. “One more like that and we’ll have enough for lunch.”

This is Boca Grande, a small community on beautiful Gasparilla Island in southwest Florida. It may not look like it, but the town is the front line in a desperate defense of Florida’s native flora and fauna against invasive species. The spiny-tailed black iguana is just one of around 400 nonnative animal species known to be lurking in Florida’s dense, verdant undergrowth. Burmese pythons, lionfish, Nile monitors, feral hogs and rhesus monkeys have all made Florida their home, wreaking varying degrees of environmental havoc. Last year, keeping the lid on invasive animals and plants cost the Sunshine State more than $500 million. By some estimates, that figure will rise dramatically.

According to Kristina Serbesoff-King, Invasive Species Program Manager at the Nature Conservancy, Florida is a victim of its location. “About half of the Florida peninsula experiences a subtropical climate,” she says. “This allows for a year-round growing season, meaning that nonnative plants and animals that have invasive characteristics thrive here.”

The spiny-tailed black iguanas on Gasparilla Island, for instance, descended from just a few exotic pets that were accidentally released in the late 1970s. The man who did so ’fessed up in 2008, several hundreds of thousands of dollars into the eradication program.

Alien species’ success is almost always at the expense of native plants and animals that can be wiped out with alarming speed. Serbesoff-King says that after direct habitat destruction, invasives are the greatest cause of listed species decline. But what finally stirred Boca Grande residents into hiring a trapper wasn’t the rapid degradation of the local biosphere, says Cera, but the prolific amount of iguana excrement—iguano?—piling up in their driveways, around their pools and in their attics. The exclusive island paradise had been befouled.

“When I showed up, I was like, ‘Man, you got a bigger problem than lizard poop,’” says Cera as we careen along golf cart tracks that run alongside the road. “There were hardly any flowers, no birds were singing, a total lack of young gopher tortoises, fewer anoles than you’d expect, and almost every snake I came across was all tore up.”

Here’s why: Ctenosaurs are the jocks of the iguana world. Not only do they hold the Guinness World Record for being the planet’s fastest lizard—having been clocked at 21.7 mph—they’re also more physically robust, omnivorous, cold resistant and aggressive than your green pet store iguana. While last year’s uncharacteristically frigid Floridian winter depleted many invasive reptiles, the burrowing black spiny-tail rode out the cold snap and seems intent on staying.

After quickly assessing the extent of the problem, Cera put in a bid of $20 per head, beating out around nine other trappers. An initially unpopular and protested “iguana tax” was set at between $40 and $70 per every $1 million in home value. With at least a quarter million dollars hiding out in the brush, Cera soon found a place to stay on the island and went to work.

“If this was two or three years ago, we’d have seen around 50 large adults by now,” says Cera as he scans some of the iguanas’ favorite haunts. “There are still a lot of lizards out there, but I think that individuals who have reproduced are the ones who have that gene for being leery, and they’ve passed that gene on to their young.”

In addition to being a trapper, Cera is also an amateur scientist, brimming with theories about evolution, the earth’s age and, most colorfully, the cognitive abilities of his cold-blooded nemeses.

“They can recognize me,” he says, collecting another kill from beneath some palm fronds. Lunch is becoming more substantial.

Cera is so confident that these iguanas have the capacity to recognize individual humans that he has changed clothing during hunts to lull them into a false sense of security. Another, more easily verifiable trick he plays on the ctenosaurs is casting a fishing line into the undergrowth, using a rubber frog as a lure.

“I reel in that frog along the ground and a few of ’em will chase it,” he says. “You can count on them being hungry and aggressive pretty much all of the time.”

At the peak of his operations, Cera was culling up to 500 iguanas per day. The work was starting to take its toll. “At the beginning it was difficult to deal with what I was doing,” he says. “See, I’m really just a big animal nerd.”

Cera does not look like a nerd of any kind. He looks, well, like a tough-guy biker—bullish, with a wiry goatee and shaved head. At his core, he’s always been an animal lover—who loves to eat wild game.

“I don’t believe in killing for sport,” he says. “I always tell my kids, if you’re gonna kill something, you’d better be planning on eating it.”

The people of Central and South America have used the iguana as a food source for centuries, referring to it as gallina de palo or “tree chicken.” (Beyond the supposedly similar flavor, the ctenosaur’s mannerisms— head bobbing and cocking—are uncannily henlike.) The lizard was so important to the diet of Central and South Americans that the Catholic Church long ago reclassified the iguana as a fish, permitting its consumption on Fridays and religious holidays.

“When I read that, I thought, ‘What a waste,’” says Cera. “I’d been just throwing them away. I started to compile recipes that I found and figured out some stuff of my own, basically substituting iguana meat for chicken.”

The recipes, along with some observations about invasive iguanas became a book: Save Florida, Eat an Iguana! that Cera wrote and self-published.

Not content to let me take his word on how delicious iguanas can be, Cera calls up the South Beach Bar and Grille to see if the chef would be up for lending his gastronomic flair to the five lizards we now have on ice. The chef has recently found success with beer-battered “gator wings” and is more than happy to research other novelty items for the bar menu.

Cera hands the catch over to the eager chef, and soon lunch arrives in the form of ctenosaur tacos. Even in among the cilantro, papaya and shredded queso, my senses are relaying that I’m not eating chicken. It’s quite delicious, though I’m slightly relieved that the chef chose not to serve it on the bone.

A year or so after Cera arrived on Gasparilla, native birds like scrub jays begin to return, and the gardens are in full bloom. Locals who were less than welcoming to Cera at first even went so far as to offer personal apologies for how they’d treated him when he first arrived. In fact, his program may have been too successful. The USDA is planning to take over and study the remaining population, and the town is considering discontinuing his services. Cera thinks this is a mistake.

“Here’s the reality: At some point you have to stop studying them and start killing them,” says Cera. “And we passed that point a long, long time ago.”

The discussion in Boca Grande is whether governmental organizations or private contractors like George Cera are more effective at keeping invasive species’ numbers in check. Kristina Serbesoff-King and her colleague, Dr. Meg Lowman, think that the best results will be achieved when both are working in concert.

“Private contractors are integral to invasive control,” says Serbesoff-King. “They have worked hand in glove with agencies throughout Florida. Yes, they are being paid to implement control efforts, but they are also sharing their lessons learned with the larger group.”

Serbesoff-King is the cochair of the Florida Invasive Species Partnership, floridainvasives.org. The website is a way for information on invasive species to be shared and acted upon in Florida. It’s proved a useful tool in protecting Florida’s natural species. “The way that people have been coming together to help combat this problem has helped keep me thinking positively about the task ahead of us,” she says.

As we thread in and out of opulent neighborhoods on Cera’s golf cart, we catch occasional glimpses of the USDA truck, eliciting resigned head-shaking from him.

“If they get about six iguanas, they consider it a good day,” he says before waxing poetic on the federal takeover of a once private enterprise. “The days of the cowboys, pirates and explorers are gone. What am I to do?”

One Response to “The Lizard King”

  1. invasivore Says:
    June 3rd, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Great job to George on his efforts! I’ve got a copy of his quaint, easy-to-read book, and he’s doing a fantastic job of raising invasive species awareness. We love seeing fellow invasivores out and about. There are many other great edible invasive species out there, even if you don’t live in Florida.

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