FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Standing in a boat in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Chris Whitaker aimed a .25-caliber air rifle at a large green iguana on a canal bank and squeezed the trigger.
The weapon gave a metallic pop, and the iguana jerked onto its back, its legs writhing. The iguana struggled for a minute or two, until Whitaker administered a shot to its head.
Whitaker and his girlfriend, Krissy Garcia, had paid $500 to Hunting Iguanas LLC for four hours of iguana hunting in Broward County, where the nonnative reptiles have found a congenial home along canals lined with a lush variety of trees.
“We have people come from all over the United States, all over,” said Gene Parker, the company’s owner. “And their comment is, this is a sport and a hunt we never even dreamed of. I’ve got guys that’s hunted every animal in North America.”
Hated in many neighborhoods for consuming flowers, fruit trees and vegetable gardens, green iguanas have become a business opportunity for several companies that lead guided hunts along South Florida canals. While many residents cheered on the iguana hunters on a recent excursion, the air rifles required several shots for a kill, subjecting many iguanas to lingering deaths.
The hunting party started out on a Saturday morning from Oriole Park in Margate, traveling in a bass boat captained by Bud Randall, a fishing guide who’s learned to lead iguana hunts. Propelled by a trolling motor, they moved silently through dark water thick with turtlegrass, along banks lined with backyards.
Their weapons consisted of a Gamo .177-caliber air rifle that fired lead pellets 1,400 feet per second and an Umarex Gauntlet .25-caliber air rifle that fired at 1,200 feet per second.
Whitaker, 29, an experienced hunter, had flown to Fort Lauderdale from Tyler, Texas, with his girlfriend just to try his hand at shooting iguanas. “I saw it on Facebook, and I thought, ‘Man, I gotta do this,’” he said.
Whitaker missed his first few shots but then began to score hits as he gained experience with the rifles.
Randall, with a sharp eye for iguanas, spotted one high in a cypress tree.
Using the .25-caliber rifle, Whitaker took a shot.
“You went over the top of his head,” Randall said.
Whitaker aimed again and fired. The iguana jerked, its tail flicking back and forth.
“His tail’s quivering,” Randall said. “He’s done. Now get him off the tree.”
After a couple more shots, the iguana splashed into the canal. Randall scooped it up with a net, and Whitaker administered a coup de grace to the head. He stuffed the iguana into a large black garbage bag.
They shot 26 iguanas off trees and off the canal banks, moving slowly through the network of canals that have kept the neighborhood dry in what used to be the Everglades. Krissy Garcia brought down a couple of large ones, their skin a combination of orange, brown and green.
“Great shot, Krissy!” Whitaker yelled as she nailed one on a tree trunk bent over the canal.
Along the canals, residents cheered on the hunters for taking down reptiles who consumed their gardens and fruit trees. The iguanas’ industrious digging also damages power lines, sidewalks and seawalls.
“Thank you for doing this, man!” James Mathew shouted from his backyard on the canal bank. “I was happy when I see you guys doing this.”
He said the iguanas have devoured all his attempts to grow things.
“They kill my trees,” he said. “As soon as a tree starts growing, especially the fruit trees, they eat them. You guys are giving me a big help.”
Another resident, Steven Karfis, brought out his own .22 -caliber air rifle to shoot a couple of them out of the trees by the boat.
“They eat all our garden up,” he said. “All our coconuts. They eat my mother’s flowers. You can’t grow anything. There’s like 30 of them on my property.”
The iguanas did not die quickly. An air rifle typically took several shots, often delivered over a few minutes, to bring one down. Even then, the creatures were often still moving. And when they were shot on the ground, they would typically writhe or try to limp away.
After one fell from a tree still alive, Whitaker picked it up by the tail and whapped its head twice against a cypress knee. But it was still alive, and Randall told him the correct method was a head shot, and had Whitaker hold the lizard by the tail so Randall could fire point a point-blank shot to the head.
After the hunt, when Whitaker emptied the garbage bag of iguanas onto the grass at the Margate park, two large iguanas were still alive, their chests heaving as they struggled to breathe. Whitaker used a knife to stab one in the head and neck, but it was still moving. A few minutes later, Randall dispatched them with headshots from the air rifle. Even then it took at least two shots.
“These air-rifle hunts inflict stunning levels of cruelty on iguanas,” said Barbara J. King, anthropology professor emerita at William & Mary and author of “Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild,” who has written to the state to protest the treatment of iguanas.
“They should offend any person — including any hunter — who cares about animals. It’s because of us humans, through the pet trade, that these iguanas now roam through Florida and it’s up to us to find non-cruel, better yet non-lethal, ways to solve the problem.”
A spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said iguana hunting excursions do not require licenses, but must obey laws on animal cruelty and public safety.
“Green iguanas, like all nonnative, invasive species, are not protected in Florida except by anti-cruelty law,” Lisa Thompson, spokeswoman for the wildlife commission, said in an email. Firearms and air guns “can be useful tools for humanely killing iguanas in some circumstances,” she said.
Florida’s law against cruelty to animals makes it a third-degree felony to commit any act to an animal that results in “cruel death, or excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering.”
Iguanas, native to Central America, South America and the Caribbean, arrived in Florida through the exotic pet industry, with escaped or released pets quickly multiplying in the wild. Although the state wildlife commission banned breeding and ownership of iguanas as pets last year, with exceptions for existing pets, the prohibition came far too late to stop them from establishing themselves firmly in South Florida.
Gene Parker, the company’s owner, said the apparent signs of suffering in the iguanas often reflect only nervous system spasms that can take place in the absence of consciousness or any other activity in the brain. He called the hunting excursions an opportunity to do something for the environment while providing a wholesome family activity.
“We’re sportsmen, so we’re not going to shoot anything we can’t eat. And yes, we do eat them. So if you shot a 10-inch iguana, you’re not really going to have any meat off them, and is there really a point? Is this real sportsmanship? No. Should we eradicate them all because they’re invasive? Yes, but that’s not what our program’s about.”
They get to keep the iguanas, which has an edible, mild-flavored white meat that works for tacos, nuggets and other preparations.
Hunting with air rifles can be learned quickly, he said, which allows non-hunters to engage in an activity that builds family bonds.
“We had a mother who brought her 17-year-old son out here. Her first shot was a kill shot, and she was, ‘OK, that was pretty cool.’ She only came to ride on the boat with her son, not to participate. Long story short, she got back home and both her and her son bought identical guns like we have and they’re both hunting squirrel and rabbits together. So, it brings families together.
“Also, we have kids that come out here, 6, 7 years old that come and do this. We had a family last week with a 7-year-old girl. She was a little Annie Oakley, man. She was good. Dad was so proud. Mom was excited because it was a family event.”