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Date of Issue: January 19, 2006

Sandscript

Exotics crawl into Southwest Florida

An invasion is taking place to our south. By land, sea, air … well, maybe not air, but the shores of Southwest Florida are being overrun by aliens.

It's not a pretty picture. Locals are talking of using weapons of mass destruction. Chemical warfare. Whatever it takes.

It's the lizard plague. It's a whole different invasive species than what we've got with Australian pines or Brazilian peppers. It moves, and grows, and feeds, and - well, let's cut to the chase.

Boca Grande's nightmare

islander iguanaBoca Grande is an upscale community on Gasparilla Island, at the mouth of Boca Grande Pass in Lee County. Boca Grande is old Florida, old-fashioned upscale. The Bush family vacations there during the Christmas holidays - all of the Georges and Jeb, too - plus more top-end top-flight folks than you could imagine. Old money, big time.

It's the site of the "world's richest tarpon tournament," too, since the silver kings are known to pack the pass to the south of the island during the spring months and attract anglers from throughout the world for the fishing of the hugely popular gamefish.

The island has become a haven for another visitor, too.

Mexican spiny-tail iguanas made an appearance on the small island several years ago. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the critters had a population of about 2,000 in 2000 - now, they've grown in numbers to better than 10,000.

The iguanas were apparently yet another of those critters that just got too big to be a houseguest. They get to be better than 2 feet long, they aren't one of the more cuddly of critters that you would want to invite into your bed on a cold winter night, and apparently some were set free into the wild, probably back in the 1970s.

As with all wild things, they did wild breeding stuff, and the population exploded. Without any real natural predators, the supersized lizards started taking over sand dunes, houses, seawalls and any other place they could find.

The iguanas pretty much eat anything they can get their mouths around. A popular munch is gopher tortoise eggs, a species of turtle that is far too rare in Florida to be termed a snack.

There is also a lizard erosion problem as their burrows undermine the sand dunes. And there is also apparently that iguana-human interaction problem.

Lots of folks on Boca Grande get around via golf cart on the wide sidewalks and slow streets in the area. Iguanas like to sun on sunny sidewalks. Hit an iguana, or swerve to miss a dozing iguana, and there is a high crash potential.

The Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association met last week and decided that enough was enough. Based on findings by a Florida Gulf Coast University professor, the 100-plus members of the association endorsed a special fee to add "iguana control" to the association's annual fee.

Kill them, in other words, bounty hunter.

As Professor Jerome Jackson was reported in the SH-T: "You have to euthanize. Shooting would be the most efficient and cost-effective."

There is a legality issue still to be resolved regarding the iguana hunt, but somehow, sometime soon, Mexican split-tail iguana shoots appear destined to occur in Boca Grande.

I wonder if they taste like chicken?

Cape Coral, too

Jump a little north and east from Boca Grande and you're in Cape Coral. It's one of those planned communities with a central intelligence for infrastructure and design that appeared on the Florida landscape in the mid-1970s.

Cape Coral also has a lizard problem, but one of a greater magnitude than its island neighbor. Nile monitor lizards, to be more precise. And they're a much bigger problem, literally.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, "An adult Nile monitor can measure 7 feet. The lizards can climb trees and walls, dig burrows and tunnels, swim long distances, even underwater." They too eat pretty much anything, including oysters and turtles - not just the eggs, but the turtles, too.

"Residents find them in their swimming pools, on their roofs, sunning on their sea walls," according to the Times. "Folks say the stray cat population is declining. There are unconfirmed reports of missing dachshunds and plundered koi ponds."

There were an estimated 1,000 Niles around a few years ago. Grants were put in place to start trapping and also "eradicating" the big lizards then, and population totals are still uncertain. Females can lay something like 70 eggs at a time and, like the Boca Grande iguanas, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of natural predators for these really big critters.

You want to sic your vicious Dobie dog on a 7-foot-long lizard that is related to the last surviving dragon, the Komodo? After all, "the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, which can grow up to 10 feet long, hunts deer and has been known to kill humans," according to the Times.

Maybe the real issue

OK, so we've got iguanas and dragons to the south. So what, you may ask?

Well, apparently the reptile feeding frenzy, although voracious, seems to be centered around eggs. Any kind of eggs. Bird, snakes, gators, crocodiles - yeah, there are crocs down there.

And while some of us may sometimes think that less snakes may be a good thing in the world, less birds? Of course, you remember that less eggs means less critters, and a critter that targets eggs as a main food source without anything out there to really eat its eggs means a big problem.

The ultimate solution?

Don't get a pet you can't handle or don't want to have for a long, long time.

And for goodness sake, don't just let whatever undesirable thing you have and don't want "go free" in the wilds of Florida. It may come back to bite you.

"Compleat"ly gone

The Compleat Angler Hotel on North Bimini in the Bahamas was apparently totally destroyed in a fire last week. The resort fire also killed its owner, Julian Brown.

The Compleat Angler was one of author Ernest Hemingway's favorite retreats. He apparently wrote much of "To Have and Have Not" there, and spent a lot of time fishing the waters off the island for marlin and sailfish.

Another landmark gone.

Oops

Joe Chiles pointed out the obvious - to him, but obviously not quite to me - in a Sandscript a few weeks ago when I mentioned that possums are rodents. Of course, we all know they are actually marsupials.

Jeez, I knew that, Joe. Sorry.

Sandscript factoid

Speaking of rodents, I got into a Sherlock Holmes reading jag a week or so ago and read Rick Boyer's wannabe Arthur Conan Doyle story, "The Giant Rat of Sumatra." Boyer takes Holmes and Dr. Watson on new adventures after Doyle's death, and actually does a pretty good job of re-creating the master's Sherlockian sleuth-dom.

Except for the rat itself.

OK, maybe I'm giving the story away, but the "giant rat" is actually supposed to be something called a Sumatran Tapir, Tapirus indicus. Huge, like the size of a calf huge, with a rat face, it terrorizes the multitudes, rips living flesh from bone … you get the idea. Oh, the horror.

Despite the fact that the tapir described is a vegetarian, Holmes and his author go on to explain that the critter was mistreated by its master and forced into unspeakable acts against its will. Fine, I'll buy literary artifice.

But take a look in your encyclopedia at a tapir, even a Sumatran Tapir, and try and tell me it looks like a big rat.

It's kinda like the concept that a manatee looks like a mermaid.

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