I went hunting for invasive iguanas in Florida. Not much went according to plan.

WESTON, Fla. - “There’s one up there,” yells my guide, Captain Bud, pointing to a green iguana in the boughs of a pine tree. Through the scope of my air rifle, I can see the distant silhouette of a reptile skittering between tree branches.

I soon lose track of it. Waves are rocking our small fishing boat on one of the drainage canals that helped make South Florida’s suburbs possible, a patchwork of condominiums, backyard pools and strip malls.

It’s a surreal place to be hunting.

I’m here at the behest of the state of Florida, ostensibly to help solve one of its intractable invasive species problems. About 22 miles outside of Fort Lauderdale, among the golf courses and retirement communities, green iguanas are everywhere.

Since arriving in Florida from Central and South America in the 1960s, as part of the exotic pet trade, green iguanas have colonized suburbia. Residents and government officials accuse them of tearing up backyard gardens, collapsing canals and displacing native wildlife.

Florida’s response has been to declare open season on the species. “Every iguana removed is one less iguana causing negative impacts across Florida’s landscapes,” McKayla Spencer, who helps manage nonnative species for Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said in an email. Since 2023, anyone can trap or hunt as many as they want on designated public lands, provided they don’t violate anti-cruelty laws.

With this in mind, I headed back to my home state to hunt iguanas - and it’s why I find myself raising my air rifle and slowly squeezing the trigger. An iguana high up in the trees scuttles off to the other, safer side of the trunk, untouched, my pellet having veered wildly off course.


I’m not a hunter. Growing up, my shooting was exclusively at targets. But I am among the ranks of people that Florida, and many other states, are hoping to enlist in managing species originating from beyond their borders. From wild hogs to lionfish, nonnative species now inhabit an area the size of California across the United States, costing an estimated $120 billion annually in damage - and hunters are being asked to curb their populations.

Florida is their wild west. “We have more nonnative reptiles and amphibians than any place in the entire world,” says Christopher Searcy, a biology professor at the University of Miami, who estimates 26 percent of all species in the state are nonnative. “If you value native diversity, I think it’s pretty bad.”

So my plan was simple: Go deep into Florida’s suburbs and see how hunting iguanas can help restore Florida’s ecosystems, easing the burden of invasive species.

Not much went according to plan.

Invasive capital

On a spring morning, our guide, Bud Randall, is picking us up just past dawn on a boat ramp along the New River Canal at the edge of the Everglades.

Randall, 79, has spent the last few decades taking anglers out into the Gulf Stream to catch marlin and mahi-mahi. Today, he is among the growing number of professional outfitters at Hunting Iguanas Florida, and places like it, guiding people from around the world to hunt iguanas along the canals of Florida’s densely populated neighborhoods.

After loading the bass boat with two black .25 caliber air rifles - weapons Florida allows to hunt iguanas in residential areas - a net and some ammunition, we pull away from shore. “This is the first thing I’ve done in the world that doesn’t get old for me,” says Randall, who goes by Captain Bud, regaling us about stories of past hunts.

The boat glides across the dark surface of the canal, polished as obsidian glass. Only a dike separates us from the Everglades, a river of grass that forms one of Florida’s last great wildernesses.

But that’s not where we’re headed. Randall turns the wheel, heading east, motoring into the heart of Miami-Dade suburbia. We snake past stucco neighborhoods, backyard pools and low-slung bridges with mere inches of clearance above our heads.

We’re in prime territory for iguanas (there are three nonnative varieties in Florida) - and dozens of other introduced species. Florida, blessed with a warm, subtropical climate and at the crossroads of a global pet and food trade, is home to species from almost every continent. At least 139 nonnative species have settled in the state since 1924, say state wildlife officials.

Their spread has followed the same pattern ecologists began noticing in the 20th century as species introduced by humans began spreading unchecked. At first, reports of a few exotic individuals might be treated as curiosities. But by the time biologists sounded the alarm, the invaders were usually impossible to contain. Most species became permanent members of the landscape, sometimes damaging ecosystems and property or spreading disease.

Iguanas are hard to miss, growing over five feet long and up to 17 pounds. The herbivorous reptile’s love of suburban plantings and digging - their burrows can stretch more than 80 feet - tests locals’ patience and creates expensive repairs by collapsing sidewalks, foundations, sea walls and patios.

Suburban hunt

On the boat for the hunt is Zack Parisa, a close friend who first started hunting with his mother at age 13 in his native Alabama.

Zack and I, who studied forestry together at the Yale School of the Environment, have talked a lot about hunting over the years. I’ve witnessed many weekends he spent trekking into California’s Sierra Nevadas after deer or wild pig, often coming back empty-handed rather than with meat for the freezer.

Why do it?

“It’s being part of place,” he tells me. “Reading the land and understanding not just what’s on it and why, but how it fits in. It’s being part of that ecosystem, at least for a time.”

As Captain Bud brought us deeper into the canals, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what ecosystem we were a part of. I watched from the boat as Egyptian geese and Muscovy ducks waddled across thick carpets of Bermuda grass. Strands of Australian pines lined the canal banks.


Humans have created a novel environment, redistributing species from around the globe, and green iguanas are thriving in this place where almost all the plants and animals come from somewhere else. I wondered if hunting iguanas could claim to be part of this new ecosystem - even if that place is called the suburbs.

But, so far, the iguanas were determined to lay low. Most were camouflaged in trees, waiting for the afternoon to sun themselves on the canal’s grassy banks. Then Captain Bud steered us toward his “trophy spot,” a secret location along one of the many canals’ public lands legally open to hunting.

After idling the engine, we only see swaying leaves and branches of the banyan trees. “Look up at the tops of the trees,” he says, impatient. Eventually, we see one iguana move. Then another. Soon, the entire tree comes alive with reptilian shapes, long tails and spiked crowns, the prehistoric creatures step along branches overhanging the water.

For the next hour, Zack and I track iguanas high up in the trees from the boat. While some escape, there are so many, we hit a few on the outer branches, retrieving them once they fall to the ground, or climbing up branches and wading into the water to pull them out.

Up close, the iguanas look dignified, even beautiful, their skin a mix of green rusty orange, the final montage of millions of years of evolution. We lay out five of the animals on the banks. We surely could have shot more - there are no size or bag limits - but only took enough to eat. Captain Bud quarters our prey before we put them on ice to cook once we’re back to the hotel.

After the hunt, I felt conflicted. Green iguanas were declared invasive, but I suspected their capital crime was thriving in an ecosystem we created for them. Had I just helped restore Florida’s ecology? Or was I, as one wildlife biologist put it to me, just “adding to the body count?”

The point of the hunt

When I ask Searcy, who studies reptiles and amphibians in the Everglades, whether I helped or hurt Florida’s battered environment, he tells me it’s not iguanas he’s worried about.

So far, iguanas primarily settle near people, not largely undisturbed ecosystems where they could do the most damage. When it comes to wildlife, research often cites iguanas’ impacts - consuming plants eaten by endangered butterflies, or potentially displacing owls and gopher tortoises from burrows.


But that’s probably localized. Searcy collects lizards and amphibians at his study sites deep in the Everglades. Only about 15 percent of them are nonnative. Iguanas are virtually absent.

“I totally understand people not liking them, but that’s not the same as an ecological problem,” says Searcy. “There’s no clear indication they’re having a large negative impact on native communities.” Even if the state tried to control their numbers in earnest, he doubted hunters could have much effect either way. Each female can lay 70 eggs per year, and new populations rapidly recolonize after attempts to remove them.

He’s most worried about Asian swamp eels. The species is now spreading through parts of the Everglades. In study areas, it has already eradicated more than 90 percent of several small fish and crustacean species, eroding the base of the food chain for other animals.

“If people want to hunt iguanas and eat them, that seems fine,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s going to have a meaningful impact on the population.”

That left Zack and me with only one option: Iguana tacos.

Jason Quenguan, a chef at our hotel on Key Biscayne, was enthusiastic about helping us prepare our quarry, describing a recipe for iguana tacos that called for simmering them with guajillo and ancho chiles, oregano and cinnamon before folding them into soft corn tortillas.

Iguanas, often called chicken of the trees, are a high-protein, low-fat meat popular across South and Central America, and the Caribbean. They’re sought after for tacos, burritos, curries, stews and more, and have been part of the human diet for at least 10,000 years.

So on a Monday afternoon, a few hours before departing, we delivered our catch to the chef, who disappeared into the kitchen with an iced bag full of iguana legs and tails.

We grabbed a table by the beach, ordered beers and waited for the meal. If there was a satisfying coda to the hunt, it might be finding a source of homegrown protein in people’s backyards, rather than feedlots or fisheries.

An honest reckoning with our environment might recognize their place in it - and ours. Applying “invasive” to green iguanas reveals more about our concern for property damage to canals, patios and shrubs, than the invasion of pristine ecosystems.

Iguanas are everywhere in the cities and suburbs of South Florida because of us. We’re going to need to learn to live with them. Perhaps hunting merely reflects our role at the top of an ecosystem we created. After all, nonnative Florida species are already appearing on plates. Why not iguanas?

But a few minutes before the food was to arrive, we received a text from the galley: “Gentlemen I’m sorry to inform you,” wrote Quenguan, “but my chef has just told me that we cannot cook the iguana.”

The kitchen’s head chef had decided iguana was off the menu.