The Iguana Squad: Superheroes Rescue Iguanas


Julie, Link and Pete burst into a room to rescue a malnourished and mistreated iguana.

“You have the right to remain silent,” says Julie to the perpetrator, the iguana’s owner..

The perpetrator looks perplexed. “But I didn’t know iguanas never eat dog food. I didn’t know iguanas need climbing space. I just didn’t know.”

“Ignorance is no excuse,” says Julie. “Without the Iguana Squad, your reptile would have died!”

This scenario is Lori King’s dream. King founded the Iguana Squad in 1997. Armed with knowledge about green iguanas they rescue imperiled giant lizards. Through education, they hope to stop people from making the mistake of buying an iguana in the first place.

Typically selling for $12 to $25, the little green lizards grow to be modern versions of a dinosaur, reaching up to six feet in length.

Not being prepared to share a condo with a dinosaur, thousands of these lizards are promptly disposed of. Jennie Picciola of Chicago, a member of the Iguana Squad, says there are more castaway iguanas than iguanas living in home. “It’s a fact, at least half of the green iguanas are given up,” she says.

While all would agree too many dogs and cats are disposed of annually at shelters, imagine the horror if half of all pet dogs and cats were abandoned. There’s no question the plight of green

iguanas has reached epidemic proportions.

According to the 1999 American Pet Product Manufacturer’s Association National Pet Owner’s Survey, there are 2.25 million pet iguanas.

King, who is also in Chicagoan, and now president of the Chicago Herpetological Society, says the Society’s telephone hotline receives a dozen calls weekly from desperate iguana owners seeking a new dwelling for their green monster. Major zoos get a similar call at least once a week, and there are ads in newspapers and online from those looking for sanctuaries for their iguanas. In fact, A. J. Gutman of West Hartford, CT operates one of several sanctuaries for iguanas. She says she has 16 green iguanas and no vacancies.

And those are the relatively responsible owners with a conscience. Reports abound of full grown iguanas found in sewers – most are dead or near death. In Chicago, the Iguana Squad rescued a green dino from a trash can behind a vet’s office, and in Minneapolis an iguana was found in October climbing a tree. Had the iguana not been rescued, it would have frozen to death. In Florida, Southern Georgia and several other southern states green things run rampant. But green iguanas are not native to North America (they’re from Central and South America, and Mexico). Young iguanas typically perish as dinner for feral cats or birds. Full size iguanas may survive, even reproduce, destroying native plants in the process. In Arizona and the southwest iguanas are let loose by owners thinking they’ll do fine in the dessert. However, these tropical animals require humidity, and ultimately die if they don’t first become road kill.

Gutman, founder of the Connecticut Iguana Sanctuary and a board member of the International Iguana Society, says of those iguanas that are not discarded, most never make it to celebrate their fifth birthday because of malnutrition and/or poor iguana living conditions. Green iguanas should live 12 to 20 years, and some individuals live longer.

Gutman says most of the iguanas she receives are scarred for life, requiring intensive rehab before they can be considered for adoption. Many never get over the physical and/or psychological trauma caused by improper care. “I’m not necessarily talking about inhumane and cruel owners, often these are people who don’t know any better, who get improper instructions from pet stores or from outdated books on iguana care,” Gutman says.

Shifty is an 18-inch long 4 year old iguana. At this age, she should measure about 3 ½ -feet. Aside from dwarfism, her lower jaw is askew. Her condition is due to a lack of calcium and ultraviolet light. Today, her diet is balanced and she gets plenty of light, but she’ll never recover from her deformities.

Irving is a downright good-looking lady iguana (despite her name). Like many in her brood, Gutman doesn’t know Irving’s biography. All she knows is that Irving was malnourished when she arrived and terrified of people, lashing out wildly at any approach. After six months of intensive TLC, the four-foot lizard accepts Gutman. But Gutman feels relocating Irving yet again would be too traumatic.

“They may be reptiles, but these are sensitive and reasonably intelligent beings,” says King. Indeed any combination of early mishandling, a poor diet and inappropriate housing can create a mistrusting and downright unpredictable and aggressive animal. Iguanas can be formidable. An whip from a tail can sting an adult and knock down a child or elderly person. Iguanas do bite, tearing flesh in the process.

“People see them with leashes in parks,” says King. “They’re great pets if you understand this is a lizard – a really big lizard – not a green cocker spaniel.”

Then why own iguana in the first place? “I love them; I respect them and I learned how to care for them,” Picciola says.

Several varieties of the15 species of iguana are kept by expert hobbyists in captivity, but it’s the maligned green iguana (Iguana iguana) that’s sold in big numbers for a low cost at some super store pet stores (although PETsMART stopped selling them). Gutman says the iguana pet owning craze began in the late 1980’s, spiked when “Jurassic Park” was released in 1993, and has been on the rise ever since.

“There’s no question, with that long tail and those big cheek jowls, these guys look like dinosaurs,” says King. “There’s no other lizard that looks like an iguana – that’s a part of the appeal.”

“Our mission is to speak the truth about green iguanas, hopefully convincing novices this is absolutely not a starter reptile pet,” King says. “And for those who already have iguanas, we provide accurate information about their care.”

If she hears of an iguana being mistreated, will King do as Julie, Link and Pete do in her dream, break into a home and rescue the green dino? “You never know,” she says. “We’ll do nearly anything to save iguanas.”

Ten facts you should know about green iguanas:

· Owners must be veritable iguana chefs, chopping assorted fresh dark greens and vegetables (90 per cent of diet) and fruits and flowers (10 per cent of diet) daily.

· Daily clean up of uneaten food and iguana waste is required.

· Adult green iguanas reach 5 to 6-feet.

· With proper care, a green iguana’s lifespan exceeds 12 years.

· Iguanas require climbing space at least equaling their 5 to 6 ft. span, and the width of the enclosure should be at least one and half times as long as the lizard.

· Lighting and temperature are imperative to health, including three to four hours of daily sunlight or ten to 12 hours of daily ultraviolet light. A temperature of 75 to 80 is required.

· A humidity level of 60 to 70 per cent is also necessary for good health.

· Iguanas may be carriers of salmonella, which can cause stomach upset and flu like symptoms. However, very young children and immunosuppressed people, in particular, may become seriously ill. It’s easy to avoid salmonella, wash your hands after handling reptiles. However, toddlers aren’t likely to obey this rule before putting their hands in their mouths.

· With proper socialization, diet and caging most green iguanas are docile. However, other individuals can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Unaltered iguanas get cantankerous during breeding season.

· Green iguanas should take a dip into a kiddie pool or bathtub approximately once a week, and require misting several times a week.