Green iguanas are invasive exotics and in South Florida, their numbers have exploded. They eat vegetation and sometimes bird eggs. And they dig into the ground, destabilizing canal banks, bridge pilings — and at the Key West cemetery, grave sites.
One weekend a month, two guys from Miami-Dade County head to Key West, to catch iguanas on city property. They navigate around the crypts and headstones at the city cemetery, lassoing the lizards.
Manny Hernandez has been catching reptiles all his life.
"I tell everybody that I was born with my hands wrapped around my umbilical cord, like if it was a snake. Ever since I was a kid, I would catch the little lizards and stuff," he said. "In kindergarten, they would call me on the PA: 'There's a lizard in the principal's office — come and get it.'"
Hernandez has a day job, with the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department. But his passion has always been reptiles.
For years he and his friend Cris Garcia would catch local reptiles and sell them. Now they only catch exotics like tegu lizards — and iguanas. And they have more demand for iguana catching than they can handle.
They've been visiting the Key West cemetery for two years. They estimate they've removed 3,000 iguanas in the two years they've worked there.
What happens to the lizards?
It is legal and in some ways encouraged to kill iguanas in Florida. You just have to make sure you obey animal cruelty laws, and whatever rules apply to weapons where you're using them.
"We ship them out of state. Mostly for pets," Hernandez said. Outside of Florida, it gets cold enough that the iguanas won't survive if they're released or get loose.
But it's only the young ones who do well in captivity, Hernandez said. Once they're full-fledged adults, they don't like life as pets. So most of those wind up as pet food.
"We have a client that we send them euthanized and he grinds them up and makes sausages. And those sausages are to feed animals that are picky eaters, that they only eat lizards," he said.
How they catch iguanas depends on where they are. In the cemetery, the pole and lasso method works best. Hernandez has come up with a fiberglass pole that has a loop of fishing line at the end. It kind of looks like iguana fishing — he dangles the loop in front of the iguana and it walks right into the lasso.
'Every iguana has its day with us'
Occasionally one scampers up a tree and gets away, but Hernandez doesn't worry about that too much.
"The one that gets away from you today, you catch it tomorrow. But every iguana has its day with us," he said.
Only a minute or two after a rare miss, Hernandez catches two more in the same area. One is a couple feet long.
"It's a big female. That one should have laid about 40 eggs this year. Or more," he said.
In his other hand, he's got a little guy.
"And that one will breed maybe next year, or the following," he said.
The cemetery isn't the only city property that Hernandez and Garcia work on. The city pays them $350 per site for each visit. They also target iguanas at the police station, a city park and the old landfill on Stock Island. Garcia said they were undermining the edges there, digging in for nests.
And the landfill is right on the water, so the iguanas were dropping into the mangroves as soon as they saw the guys coming for them.
"We tried trapping. We tried noosing. We tried hunting at night. We tried getting on a boat. And they were just too wise," he said. "So the only way we've been able to put a dent in there is by shooting."
'It's a war'
This is a long-term battle.
"It's a war. I'm taking care of them at the dump and then all they do is cross the street and they're back at the dump again," he said. "Because it's prime habitat and prime nesting area for They don't just target big iguanas.
"You come out here and just shoot the big ones, you're not doing anything. You're always behind the eight ball," Hernandez said.
The little ones are eating a lot, and in a couple years, they'll be ready to start laying eggs, too.
"So we go after everything. We go after adults, we go after the babies. If we can dig up a nest and gather the eggs, we'll take the eggs as well," he said.
Biologists say it's impossible to entirely eradicate green iguanas from South Florida. Hernandez thinks it is possible — if every property owner was committed to eradicating them.
They agree that the biggest ally in the battle against the lizards is that rare South Florida phenomenon — the severe cold snap. That's especially rare in Key West, where the lowest recorded temperature on record is 42 degrees.