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Plight of the Iguana

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the darker side of fashion: a glut of green iguanas that nobody wants.

L.A. now has so many castoff iguanas that rescue organizations are overwhelmed. Groups that try to rescue the creatures are saying they can’t take any more of them--including one group that set up a network of iguana foster homes to handle the overflow from established shelters and rescue centers.

“We get two calls a day here at the zoo from people wanting to place their iguanas,” said Russ Smith, reptile curator at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Smith said he has to tell the callers there’s no room. “In the last couple years, it’s mushroomed,” he said.

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The same story is told by pet shops, reptile groups, and the nonprofit Wildlife Waystation in Tujunga, an animal rescue group, which has well over 100 abandoned iguanas and won’t take any more.

“We get calls daily,” said Martine Colette of the Waystation.

Thus, iguanas may join potbellied pigs and pythons, other fad pets with the misfortune to have outlived their own trendiness.

Many are skittish from neglect or misshapen from lack of light--sad testaments to the arbitrariness of people’s compassion and taste.

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Unforeseen Burden

The roots of the iguana problem lie in part with the iguana itself, an animal new to domesticity but with plenty of quirks left over from its wild incarnation. Imports into the United States have also been driven up by the development of a large Latin American breeding industry.

Without meaning to, iguanas often prove a larger burden than their owners anticipate. The South American lizards grow handily and inexorably until they die, said Smith. That pencil-length green lizard that seems a good Christmas gift just might become a 6-foot-long behemoth in a few years.

And though fanciers praise them as intelligent and responsive pets--relative to other reptiles, that is--the males can become aggressive and territorial. They have pointed teeth, sharp claws, and surging hormonal cycles.

Although not usually considered dangerous, they can inflict damage simply because of their natural inclination to grip the arm that holds them, Colette said.

They are prone to pneumonia and nutritional deficiencies. And they scurry. A fast one can outrun--or, more accurately, out-waddle a human. “They need room to roam,” said Colette.

In short, said Curt Steindler, executive director of the Reptile and Amphibian Rescue Network, “They are not terrarium animals. And anyone who thinks so finds themselves sadly mistaken.”

Regulations Sought

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Responding to pleas from reptile fanciers, the Los Angeles Animal Regulation Commission recently approved a new set of regulations that would require sellers of such pets to give buyers care instructions, inform them that they must obtain a $70 city wild animal permit and, most important in the case of iguanas, disclose how much the animals are likely to grow.

Some provisions of the proposed new rules will go before the council in the coming week.

“What we really want is anyone thinking about getting an iguana to know that 6-inch iguana could be 3 feet in two years,” said Gini Barrett, the commission’s president.

Sales of iguanas took off several years ago, driven in part by decreasing prices, said John Holmes, president of the Southern Herpetological Society and vice president of the rescue group.

As thousands of animals were imported, the price dropped below $20.

Joe Ventura, a wildlife inspector for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Port of Los Angeles, said about 2,000 of the lizards come through the port each month, although the number has tapered off. Even more come through Miami, he said.

‘Incredible Problem’

Bright-green and dinosaur-like when little, their popularity waxed, then waned. Now, iguanas are “an incredible problem,” said Diane Lee, president of the reptile rescue group. Forty percent of the calls the group receives are about unwanted iguanas.

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“Just about everyone [in the group] who did their homework and got one now has two or three,” she said. “I did my homework and didn’t want one.”

Howard Feldman, owner of California Pet Center in Woodland Hills, said he no longer sells the animals, though he also still gets calls from people looking to unload them.

Asked about the lizards, Feldman sighed. “Where do I start? It’s ridiculous. . . . People keep breeding them. It’s like puppy mills.”

Callous Attitude

Erin Terry, owner of Exclusively Reptiles, a Westchester pet store, also no longer sells iguanas. She said she thinks people are more callous about them because they are reptiles, not mammals.

When she used to sell iguanas, she said, she would show prospective customers one of her own--a 5-footer she keeps in her shop.

“I would say, do you realize that it gets this big? What are you going to do with it when it gets this big?” she said. “Most times the response is, ‘Well, I’ll get rid of it if it gets that big.’

“I get so irritated. People wouldn’t get a dog or cat and say in two years I’ll get rid of it.”

Feldman and Terry say they support the city’s efforts to tighten rules and boost education of iguana owners, although Feldman said sellers need to be educated too.

Places such as the Wildlife Waystation, meanwhile, are trying to find keepers--informed, prepared and willing iguana owners--for those they have collected.

The trend may be ebbing, but there are signs it may simply be shifting locales. Ventura, the port wildlife inspector, said officials recently have seen an increase in exports of iguanas from the port to Japan and other Asian countries.


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