Breeding green iguanas, pythons, & tegu lizards will be banned after 2024
TALLAHASSEE, Florida––Trying to lock the Florida swamps decades after green iguanas, pythons, tegu lizards, and countless other reptiles well-adapted to the habitat slithered in, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission on February 25, 2021 voted unanimously to add green iguanas, pythons, tegu lizards, Nile monitors, and anacondas––16 species in all––to the state list of prohibited species.
Individual owners of the 16 prohibited reptiles will be allowed to keep those they already have, if licensed, but will not be allowed to breed and sell them, explained Melissa Tucker, director of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Habitat & Species Conservation.
“Time has come to take a bold stance”
Breeders and dealers hissed disapproval of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission action, but commissioner Rodney Barreto “said the time has come to take a ‘bold stance,’” reported Jim Turner for the News Service of Florida, “after a process that also included the commission hosting 10 three-hour workshops on the proposal and more than 4,000 people submitting written comments.”
Recommended Barreto, “We’ve got to put our foot down,” a bold stance indeed in the marshy areas of a state whose native species include alligators, crocodiles, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, cottonmouths, and a variety of other carnivorous and/or venomous animals.
Many of these carnivorous and/or venomous native species annually injure and kill many times more humans than all of the “invasive” species combined.
Shaking the trees of reptile breeders, Turner reported, is that iguanas and tegu lizards “account for about $620,000 a year of the $50 million to $200 million reptile trade in Florida, which includes almost 4,000 species.”
But the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission “agreed to allow existing commercial breeding of tegus and green iguanas to continue until June 30, 2024,” Turner wrote.
State spends less to control feral herps than Miami-Dade spends ignoring pit bull ban
Tucker testified that Florida annually spends about $8 million a year to control green iguanas, pythons, tegu lizards, et al, or a bit less than Miami-Dade Animal Services alone appears to spend on impounding, sheltering, and rehoming pit bulls, instead of enforcing the 32-year-old city and county pit bull ban.
For the record, neither wild green iguanas, pythons, tegus, Nile monitors, nor anacondas have ever killed anyone in Florida. Iguanas, indeed, as non-venomous vegetarians, have never killed anyone anywhere.
Captive pythons and Nile monitors, kept in grossly unnatural conditions, have killed one Floridian each, total, ever. Pit bulls have killed four people in Miami-Dade since 2014.
(See Pit bull moonshine claims another life in the “Sunshine State”, Florida: Bashing the brains out of iguanas as alleged illegal aliens, and Who eats the most Floridians––pythons, pit bulls, bears, or alligators?)
Ban will be purely symbolic
Tucker apparently did not mention the extent to which green iguanas and tegus furnish food to Florida native species, alligators especially, or the role of the estimated 10,000 feral pythons in Florida in controlling the approximately 1.3 million alligators in the state, who otherwise have no significant natural predators.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission ban on commercially breeding green iguanas, pythons, and tegus is in any event purely symbolic, since all three species––and many other species not considered native to Florida, no matter how well adapted to the habitat––long ago proved quite capable of reproducing themselves in the wild, without human help.
Exactly how long ago Floridians began commercially breeding reptiles for various purposes is unclear, but nationally syndicated gossip columnist Graham McNamee in February 1929 mentioned “an enterprising citizen who has a lot in Florida which he thinks would do beautifully for an iguana farm. The iguana, he informs me,” McNamee wrote, “is a big green lizard which tastes like chicken.”
Florida iguana terrified Michigan university town
William T. Hornday (1854-1937), who was first director of the Bronx Zoo, 1896-1926, reported in Hornaday’s American Natural History (1927) that green iguanas were already abundant in captivity, apparently kept both as pets and for food.
Commercial traffic in Florida green iguanas existed by 1957, when one Herb Wendt purchased a 5-foot-three-inch green iguana in Florida “as a possible pet for his Pi Kappa Phi fraternity” in East Lansing, Michigan, according to United Press International.
Escaping, the iguana “had this college town in a state of panic,” the account continued.
A year later, in 1958, J.K. Ellsworth of the Sarasota Herald Tribune profiled local exotic animal dealer Bill Smith, illustrating the article with a photo of Smith holding a rhinoceros iguana. Smith also bred a variety of other reptiles.
Ross Allen, a snake farmer said to be operating “near Miami,” was the subject of local television profiles in 1960, 1961, and 1967.
Central American milk snake found in Everglades
The futility of trying to keep species climatically well-adapted to Florida out of ecologically welcoming habitat niches picked up another illustrative example, even as the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission moved against reptile breeders.
The Fort Collins Science Center in far-away Colorado, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, confirmed that hikers on the Mahogany Hammock Trail in Everglades National Park had discovered a Central American milk snake earlier in February.
Those hikers apparently knew their herps exceptionally well, because they paused long enough to collect and report a good enough description that park staff soon afterward caught the snake.
“This individual is thought to be a released pet,” and one of a kind, “because of its docile behavior and unusual coloration,” the U.S. Geological Survey said in a prepared statement.
Milk snake resembles deadly coral snake
But there was a flaw in the U.S. Geological Survey logic.
While Central American milk snakes have only been documented in the U.S. once before, in California, “The milk snake, in its native habitat, has similar bands of red, yellow and black as native coral snakes, which are highly venomous, but in a different pattern,” recounted Miami Herald environment reporter Adriana Brasileiro.
The significance of that is that anyone other than a snake expert who put a foot down anywhere near a Central American milk snake in Florida would probably hesitate only long enough to stumble over the warning jingle “red touch yellow kills a fellow; red touch black, venom lacks; yellow touches red, soon be dead; red touches black, friend of Jack.”
That person would then likely remove his or her foot as quickly as possible and make rapid tracks out of potential striking distance, without pausing to investigate the band pattern.
Further, while coral snakes normally grow only to 20 inches long, most people––even in Florida––do not know that. Central American milk snakes grow up to 70 inches long. Most people seeing what might be a super-sized coral snake would most certainly not try to grab a specimen.
Snail kites evolve longer bills & thrive on “invasive” apple snails
The major conservation argument against the presence of non-native species in Florida, as in other habitats, centers on the contention that the immigrant species might compete for habitat and food with endangered native species.
But University of Florida associate professor of wildlife ecology Robert Fletcher discovered in 2017, and reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, that endangered Florida snail kites have rapidly evolved larger bills to feast on “invasive” island apple snails, a species several times larger than the native snails that had formerly been the kites’ main prey.
Fletcher noted that the snail kite population crashed between 2000 and 2007, as island apple snails proliferated with few predators. However, within a few nesting seasons, snail kites with bigger bills gained a significant survival advantage, since they could and did feast upon island apple snails.
The estimated 700 Florida snail kites as of 2007 are reportedly now up to 400 breeding pairs, meaning a minimum of 800 healthy adult birds.