and some suggestions about what to do about it

You have probably already read my notes on Iguana iguana in previous sections. Here I want to look not at the problem of keeping individual iguanas in captivity but the problem of iguanas in the pet trade. Basically there are two facets of this problem:

  1. There are too many iguanas being imported:
  2. Of those iguanas, too many are going to the wrong buyers.
Let's work backwards, starting with point 2.

The very strength of the green iguana is its disadvantage. Put simply, it looks so good that everyone who has ever dreamed about owning a lizard (or perhaps a pet dinosaur?) immediately thinks of an iguana. Their appearance, and their known intelligence, makes them very desireable until you know the true facts about keeping one. Unfortunately very few beginners do, at least until they buy a reasonable book that lists these difficulties. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, when confronted by an attractive little juvenile or hatchling iguana, it's easy to somehow mentally blank out the future. A little creature like this won't take much looking after, will it? (After all, kittens and puppies don't get that much bigger as adults, so why should a baby lizard?). Somehow it's easy, in the heat of the moment and the irresistibility of that baby ig's appearance, to kid yourself that in three or four years you really will move into a bigger house (and not have a larger family), or that you will persuade your spouse or family to let you have an 8ft-long vivarium in the front room, displacing some of the other furniture.... It's also easy to forget that they need humidity, reasonably high temperatures and a varied diet every day, or that males get extremely aggressive in the mating season and can sense when a woman is entering her menstrual cycle (I've witnessed the latter phenomenon myself - the iguana begins to turn orange around the head).

All these potential problems, sadly, add up to a very common scenario: two or three years after purchasing a baby iguana, the owning party decides he/she/they can no longer keep it. Either it's too active, or it's too big, or, worst of all, they're bored with it. Having a small dinosaur in your house isn't quite the cute Flintstone-type scenario that they envisaged. So somehow Iggy has to be sold, rehomed, given away or, in the last resort, got rid of somehow. If you think that sounds melodramatic, the curator of Beaver Water World, the reptile sanctuary in Kent, told me that one of the green iguanas in her care was found walking down an English High Street. One can only marvel that it survived. The same lady informs me regularly that there is a waiting list of green iguanas waiting for a place in the sanctuary. Last week, I saw one in a local pet shop that had been taken in, in a terrible condition, after being found abandoned outside a railway station in January. In the USA, which is thousands of miles closer to the home of the Green Iguana and which has regions with climate that are far more amenable to the lizard, the situation is even worse, with thousands of these iguanas being abandoned each year. In a bizarre twist to the tale, there are now actually feral populations of Iguana iguana in Florida and other parts of the South. While one rejoices that these individual igs have managed to survive and even prosper, it says a lot about human irresponsibility when it comes to releasing non-native animals into the local environment.

With all of the above, you might expect that, supply having exceeded demand, the import of iguanas, captive-raised or otherwise, might have been decreasing. Unhappily this is not so. To the best of my awareness there are still thousands of iguanas, mostly babies, imported from Central and South America each year. While suffering perhaps less badly than Asian or African imported animals, their conditions are still far from optimal, and the worst part of their voyage is often at the receiving end when being kept in holding pens, where they are stressed out and sometimes kept in filthy conditions. Meanwhile the indigenous populations of the animal in Central America are under threat thanks to this over-collecting for the pet trade and the use of the green iguana for food by the local human populace. Neither of these itself would constitute a threat to the green iguana: in fact, properly managed farming of iguanas might benefit both the reptiles and the natives, just as the reintroduction of certain pig breeds into farms in this country would increase their numbers and allow a controlled but thriving population. Unfortunately the present situation falls between two stools and benefits nobody, least of all the iguanas themselves.

What can be done? There have been various suggestions for dealing with the problem of the green iguana. Some solutions have been offered by animal welfare organisations and bodies, some, like a total ban on iguana imports, by animal rights organisations, who admittedly have their own agenda. For what it's worth, I offer some suggestions below:

  1. The simplest and most locally effective step an individual can take is to inform others. This smacks of crusading, something I'm not normally keen on, but if people as a whole were more informed about the difficulties and responsibilities of iguana ownership, there would be fewer iguanas ending their days in sanctuaries or worse. You don't have to go around shouting about it, just a mention now and again, especially to those people you think might want an iguana, will be an effective start.

  2. Monitor pet shops. Again, this smacks sometimes of Big Brother or so-called "liberationists", neither of which I'm keen on. And some pet shops are very good and responsible, stocking only the odd green iguana now and again and fully informing prospective buyers of the burden they are taking on. But some, including some chains who ought to know better, seem to have a ready stock of green iguanas passing through. If you suspect a pet shop is doing a soft-sell with green iguanas onto unsuspecting buyers, there are legitimate ways to question, inform and protest to the shop themselves. If the shop won't listen, the local council, the local newspaper and the local MP may well be more interested. But remember: be polite. If word spreads around and a shop thinks trade may be damaged, they may well be more amenable to suggestions. But check your facts.

  3. CITES protection. At the moment, to the best of my knowledge, Iguana iguana is not protected under CITES. Just moving it onto CITES III would help in the monitoring of imports. Savannah monitors, after all, have been on CITES for a while: they are still available, but there does not seem to be the same problem with unwanted savannahs although they share many of the desirable characteristics of iguanas (looks, intelligence). Admittedly one individual cannot bring about such a change, but letters to MPs can help push the debate along.

  4. A licensing system. I will discuss this in more depth elsewhere, as I believe such a system could be useful for other large reptiles (and mammals) that unfortunately get the wrong kind of attention. I envisage a system where an individual wishing to buy an iguana would have to pay a certain fee to the authorities and in return would receive official sanction plus a pack of information on the dos and don'ts of keeping iguanas. Like a car, the licensee would also have to inform the authorities when the iguana was sold, died or otherwise passed out of his/her possession. An inspector would have the right to refuse a license if the potential keeper was patently unsuitable, eg someone living in a flat with a family of five and two dogs. The stress under this system would not be on the danger to other people but on the danger to the iguana itself.
Finally, if you are a herpetologist yourself and you have the room, consider adopting an iguana rather than purchasing one. I am not against pet shops selling igs per se, but at the moment there are a lot of green iguanas needing homes, certainly in the US. This is admittedly an option mainly for those who have (a) the room and (b) the experience, since a stressed iguana would probably lead to a stressed novice. And if you have a pair, breed them. I know this may sound strange in the light of the above, given the surfeit of imported igs, but more captive-bred iguanas lead to happier iguanas in the captivity and happier iguanas in the wild, at least in the long run.

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