Tegu Lizards Are Taking Over the Florida Everglades | Miami New Times


Tegu Lizards Are Taking Over the Everglades

With his trusty German shepherd in tow, Rodney Irwin drives past a state mental hospital at the edge of the Everglades and pulls into the brush. A machete rests on the floorboard beneath his feet, and a gallon of his favorite drink — Walmart-brand black-cherry soda mixed with orange Gatorade...
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With his trusty German shepherd in tow, Rodney Irwin drives past a state mental hospital at the edge of the Everglades and pulls into the brush. A machete rests on the floorboard beneath his feet, and a gallon of his favorite drink — Walmart-brand black-cherry soda mixed with orange Gatorade powder — sloshes around in the back of his bright-blue, beat-up Dodge four-by-four.

Sweat soaks Irwin's long-sleeved shirt, and bugs fly through the open window. A small fan plugged into the lighter is his only reprieve from the heat. Hopping out of his SUV, he pushes through sawgrass and spots his prize: a two-foot-long lizard thrashing around in his wire trap.

Irwin, a goateed 62-year-old with the twang of a third-generation Homestead resident, grabs the reptile with his gloved hands.

"Ah, you little brat," he says, tossing it headfirst into a cloth bag.

Irwin has spent the past four years relentlessly hunting tegus, a black-and-white lizard native to Central and South America. By his tally, 1,600 have made the mistake of wandering into one of his traps to eat the chicken eggs he leaves as bait.

It's backbreaking work dodging venomous snakes, poisonous plants, and the cruel Florida sun during the hottest months of the year, but Irwin loves it. There's satisfaction in making a small dent in a huge problem threatening an environment he's treasured his whole life, plus it beats the alternative.

"If not, I'd have to get a real job," says Irwin, a former IT worker.

"I am 100 percent sure that I'm not catching one out of every 20."

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As concerns rise that the hearty reptiles are primed to wreck our delicate ecosystem, a small army of researchers, trappers, and park rangers has joined Irwin on the hunt. Because tegus devour eggs, biologists now fear the lizards could destroy generations of rare native species such as the American crocodile and the roseate spoonbill.

No one knows how many tegus are running wild in the Everglades today, but Irwin believes the number could be in the tens of thousands. Female tegus can lay up to 30 eggs at a time, so if even half make it to maturation, the population is growing rapidly.

"I am 100 percent sure that I'm not catching one out of every 20," Irwin says. "I figure there's an absolute minimum population of 20,000, and that's in a six-mile radius."

Tegus are just the latest foreign animal to threaten South Florida's unique ecosystem, where the warm, wet weather and multiple ports of trade have made it an epicenter for runaway invasive species. Dozens of creatures that arrived via the exotic pet trade have found a new home here, from the Cuban tree frog to the Nile crocodile to the infamous Burmese python, which is now so pervasive the state sponsors an annual hunt for them.

But no case better illustrates the state's persistent invasive species problem than the tegu. The untold backstory of how one man's recklessness likely created the epidemic casts a harsh light onto just how delicate Florida's environmental health is — and how little the state is doing to protect it.

"Pythons are big, sexy animals, and TV cameras love 'em," Irwin says. "But we've got a small python problem and a really big tegu problem. We have never had a threat on this level."

As a kid growing up in the '50s, Irwin found Homestead untamed and seemingly infinite.

His father worked in construction, and his mother stayed home to look after him and his older brother. Irwin and his friends roamed rock pits, canals, and the woods for hours after school, sometimes walking miles to his grandmother's house for her homemade cookies. He remembers neighbors going out to watch in wonder when the first stoplight was installed on Card Sound Road.

Today, as he passes strip malls and Starbucks, the whole place can sometimes seem foreign. "Homestead turned into Kendall," Irwin grumbles. "I hate Kendall."

Irwin's great-grandfather, Cyrus, came to Florida from Texas in a covered wagon in 1892. Along the way, Cyrus and his wife, Sarah, had three sons, and in 1893, Irwin's grandfather Frank was born in Tampa as the family made its way south. Cyrus was a brick-maker in search of white clay he'd heard was plentiful in Miami, but when the family finally arrived, he was disappointed to see the ground was actually made of a muddy marl. It ended up not mattering — the family liked the area so much they settled in Cape Sable, at the southernmost point of the Everglades.

From a young age, Irwin was at home in South Florida's unique environment, cruising through the sawgrass on a three-wheeled Honda ATC and heading to Biscayne Bay in his dad's station wagon to go fishing for snapper.

Miami-Dade has been ground zero for invasives, from the green iguana to the Asian swamp eel.

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Even if it seemed unspoiled to him, though, even then the delicate ecosystem was at war with invasive species.

Florida's earliest example dates back to 1863, when the greenhouse frog was released in the southern part of the state after stowing away on a Cuban cargo ship. The common brown lizard, which is now seen all over Florida, arrived the same way in 1887. Since then, they've nearly wiped out the native population of green lizards.

Miami-Dade County has frequently been ground zero for invasives, from the green iguana to the Asian swamp eel, both of which arrived via the pet trade. In 1966, a Miami boy returning from a Hawaiian vacation brought back three giant African land snails as souvenirs. The boy's grandmother then released the snails into her garden, where they multiplied to more than 18,000 in seven years. It took a decade and $1 million — about $5.4 million in today's dollars — to eradicate the problem.

In the '70s, the exotic pet fad exploded as amateur backyard breeding operations began trafficking in wildlife and advertising in newspapers and comic books. The same pet trade is now responsible for more than 84 percent of the state's invasive reptiles, a 2011 University of Florida study showed.

As Florida would learn, it's easy for captive animals to escape but nearly impossible to rein them in once they're loose. The state now has 137 known nonnative reptile and amphibian species, 56 of which have begun reproducing in the wild.

That's a big problem — those new species undermine the natural checks and balances of an ecosystem, forcing animals to compete with one another for resources. They can damage crops, carry disease, and threaten already-endangered natives. The United States spends $120 billion per year trying to manage the problem by some estimates.

Despite the epidemic, Florida has never had more than a patchwork approach to preventing such catastrophes. Critics say the state has been too slow to react; it wasn't until 2008, for example, that people with captive wildlife had to provide a written plan for securing their animals during disasters like hurricanes.

The Burmese python has become the national poster child for the problem. The snakes were first spotted in the wild as early as the 1980s, but many observers believe the current crop haunting the Everglades was tossed into the area during Hurricane Andrew. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Pat Reynolds was on the wildlife beat in 1992 when the Category 5 storm tore through South Florida, killing ten people and destroying 63,000 homes. After the hurricane, Reynolds went to check on an animal importer in the area who was known for his faulty cages.

Inside a greenhouse near Homestead General Airport, the two owners had been using shelves meant for growing orchids to store their animals, including pricey pythons.

"They put all of their reptiles on there in these Dixie cup things," says Reynolds, who retired in 2011. "There were little baby pythons — real colorful when they're that young — and they could stuff 'em in a little container and put the top on it."

When the storm whipped through, off went the snakes.

"Andrew comes, blew that place apart. All of those containers just flew out like Frisbees," Reynolds says. "The direction of the wind was into Everglades National Park — the park boundaries were less than a half-mile from there. So all these animals blew in there. That's where the pythons came from."

Native populations of raccoons, white-tailed deer, and bobcats have plummeted as the snakes took over. In 2005, one of the deadly pythons famously exploded while trying to eat a six-foot alligator, and in 2009, a pet Burmese even strangled a 2-year-old girl in Central Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) soon began sponsoring the annual Python Challenge, handing out a $5,000 prize to the team that could catch the most. This year's winning team nabbed 33 during the contest, now in its fourth year.

Irwin never would have predicted he'd become a warrior in the struggle against invasives. After teaching himself about computers, he moved to California and worked on mainframes for a while before eventually moving back to Florida. In the late '90s, he started Alligator Associates and took gators to trade shows to attract visitors to businesses' booths.

In 2013, an FWC officer he knew invited him to participate in the first python hunt. But by the end of the week, and with nothing to show for it, Irwin came to believe the idea was mostly theatrics.

"For probably 90 percent of the people who do it, it's a macho thing," he says. "They go out and march around out there, but unless they put in 100 hours, 200 hours, chances are they're not going to even see one."

Instead of getting worked up about pythons, Irwin found himself transfixed by another invasive creature.

After being hired for an underwater demolition job, he emerged from a rock pit and stared directly into the eyes of a huge lizard. It scuttled away, but the experience sent him on a months-long quest to learn more about the exotic reptile.

"I'd spent 20 years working with alligators, and to see something that is alligator-like but not an alligator — that kind of set me on the course," Irwin says. "I just started looking into it, asking questions, and as soon as I identified what it was, I wanted to know why is it there, how did it get there, and how many of them are there?"

With each answer, a new question arose. Who was to blame for their release? Had it been an accident? And most important: What could be done?

On a sunny day in 2003, Officer Reynolds pulled up to a familiar property on SW 192nd Avenue in Florida City. Slamming the door of his green patrol SUV, he stepped past a chainlink fence and up to a one-story home with metal awnings. A boyish-looking animal importer in a khaki T-shirt and gold chain answered the door.

Kalam Azad seemed excited to show off his new reptile enclosures, but when he ushered Reynolds into his shed out back, the wildlife officer was stunned. The walls were lined with ramshackle wooden cages fitted with sharp mesh wiring meant for installing stucco. Seeing Reynolds' alarm, the 36-year-old did his best to reassure the officer.

"Nothing ever escapes there," Azad promised.

Suddenly, Reynolds sensed something move above them. As he looked up, he found himself face-to-face with a black-and-white tegu.

"Why is this guy loose on the shelf up here?" Reynolds asked. Then he noticed an even bigger problem.

"Up here in the roof is a hole, goes right to the outside," he said, pointing. "I mean, he could easily get on this second shelf and go right outside."

The encounter was captured by a British TV crew producing a season of Miami Animal Police, an Animal Planet show that aired from 2004 to 2010. The clip is an amazing archive in the annals of invasive species research — perhaps the exact moment when a huge threat to Florida's ecosystem was released into the wild. And the fact that the likely culprit got off with just a small fine illustrates exactly how bad Florida is at protecting its own environment.

Azad came to Florida from his native Bangladesh in the late '90s, settling in Homestead, where some friends hooked him up with a job at a gas station. It was there he met his future wife, Aline, whom he married in 1999.

The couple ran a business importing exotic reptiles from Aline's father, a wildlife broker in Madagascar. Reynolds frequently saw Azad at the airport, where the young importer picked up shipments of animals, sometimes selling them on the spot to other dealers.

"He was very personable," Reynolds says. "He didn't know a lot about our rules and regulations, but he started to learn quite a bit."

"He used to sell tegus... and now there are tegus. It's obvious that's where these animals came from."

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Much of that instruction came directly from Reynolds, who made frequent visits to the couple's home. The backyard enclosures where they kept their reptiles often weren't up to code, but Reynolds says he tried to be understanding of their financial situation.

"They were working on bare bones," Reynolds says. "He was placing the animals in these makeshift cages, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God.' I really felt sorry for Aline. They had a couch, they had a bed, an old rundown car, and they're renting the place... So I said, 'Look, fix these cages — I don't want these things getting out.'"

Around that time, Azad began importing Argentine black-and-white tegus, a breed coveted by exotic-pet owners across the U.S. for their intelligence. The stunningly patterned reptiles were smart enough to use a litter box and walk on a leash and often were as affectionate as a dog.

In the Miami Animal Police episode, Reynolds issued Azad a written warning; sometime after that, he says he formally cited Azad and took him to court for improper caging.

"You go in and pay your little fine, and it's over and done with. It's a misdemeanor; it's nothing," Reynolds says, adding that Azad's wife wasn't found at fault. "He's the one who was totally the irresponsible party."

The business continued operating until 2006, according to state records. Azad says business woes turned into marital tension, and the next year, the couple called it quits. Their landlord, Robert Moehling — owner of the nearby fruit stand Robert Is Here — says they left behind a slew of cages and garbage when they moved out.

"They paid rent, but they made such a big mess that I finally kicked 'em out," Moehling says. "Took over six months to clean it out. We gutted the whole house."

Today Azad's name is often invoked as patient zero in the tegu epidemic. His business address is listed in academic reports, and several wildlife officials, neighbors, and biologists told New Times they believe he was responsible for the release of the invasive lizards.

"We know others escaped with that crappy caging there," Reynolds says. "Put two and two together — he's the only guy who had those."

Joe Wasilewski, a wildlife biologist, agrees that Azad is the most likely culprit.

"It's something I don't know can legally be proven in a court of law, but let's face it: Before this guy came along, there were no tegus," Wasilewski says. "He used to sell tegus, he left, and now there are tegus. It's obvious that's where these animals came from."

Researchers can often determine with a reasonable amount of certainty the source of invasive species. That's because a species isn't able to establish a new population unless many of them escape or are let loose from the same place.

"You need a big number in a confined area so they can find each other, breed, and reproduce," Wasilewski says. "That's what happened here with the tegus."

But identifying responsible parties and formally charging them are two separate things — and proving that someone is at fault for the introduction of an invasive species remains almost impossible.

"Such an act would have to be witnessed by FWC law enforcement in order for a possible conviction," UF herpetologist Kenneth Krysko wrote in a 2011 paper. "Because current state and federal laws have not been effective at curtailing the ever-increasing number of illegal introductions, laws need to be modified and made enforceable."

Azad, who moved back to Bangladesh before returning to the States to work labor jobs in rural Georgia, has always denied responsibility. In fact, he doesn't think any of his competitors are to blame either.

"Everybody had those tegus, not just me," he says. "Any of the importers, nobody wants them to get loose. It costs money."

Azad instead believes irresponsible pet owners have caused the problem. "People buying those as pets buy the baby, and when it gets bigger and they cannot take care of it, they can't handle it and they let it go," he asserts. "That's what I think is happening."

Some of those now fighting the problem, though, say that scenario is unlikely.

"The common assumption is that this problem was caused by people releasing their pets in the Everglades or near the Everglades," Irwin says. "And it's absolutely 100 percent incorrect bullshit."

After Irwin's up-close encounter with a tegu at the rock pit, he stopped at nothing to learn more about the exotic creature. His quest sent him down internet rabbit holes and led to conversations with experts like Bob Freer, another Homestead resident who runs a wildlife sanctuary called the Everglades Outpost.

The more Irwin learned, the more worried he became.

"I come from pioneer roots, and it really bothers me to see those lizards taking out the very animals that I grew up with, that my father and my grandfather all grew up with," he says.

In early 2013, Irwin scavenged a friend's junkyard and built himself a handful of homemade traps. When those didn't work as well as hoped, he bought some Chinese traps online and jerry-rigged them to his liking. It was trial by error, one sweaty, backbreaking day after another.

"At that time, I didn't have a clue," he says.

Although a half-dozen entities are desperately trying to rid the Everglades of tegus, Irwin's unusual approach has set him apart. While researchers and state agencies trap to kill, Irwin has instead set up shop online, selling the tegus he catches for up to $225 a pop.

Irwin stores tegus in his bathtub, scooting them to the side while he showers.

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A bachelor with no kids, Irwin lives alone in a small 1950s-era house in Homestead. Both his parents are gone now, and he's estranged from his older brother. His loyal companion is a German shepherd he adopted from a friend, though he rarely uses the dog's given name, Troy, preferring instead to signal him using noises and commands like "Hut!"

"I really wish I could get a clone of him," says Irwin, who almost lost the gentle canine in an alligator attack while the two were running traps earlier this year. "He is just the absolute perfect dog."

Irwin's tegus, sometimes up to 200 of them, live outside his house in large wooden crates amid a whole yard of curiosities, from an inoperable refrigerator and oven to a large red boat he inherited from a friend who used to do drug runs back in the Cocaine Cowboys era. Irwin runs his business, Tegus Only, from a laptop in his living room and stores a handful of tegus in his bathtub, simply scooting them to the side while he showers so they don't block the drain.

His approach of removing for resale is not without controversy — groups such as the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida and politicians like Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa have called for an outright ban on selling tegus.

"I think the sale without any kind of protection is dangerous, proven that they can hurt our own native species," Sosa says. "Now that we're facing that problem and spending a lot of money, we have to take extreme precautions and action."

But Irwin says he sees only three ways to address the problem.

"One is to kill them, which is happening," he says. "The second is to let the situation continue and do nothing about it, which is completely unacceptable. The other is me: I capture tegus, rehome 'em with people who have made a conscious decision they want one."

Although he says his goal is reducing the number of wild tegus, Irwin does breed one type of them, the highly desired "firebelly," which has a reddish stomach.

"I would feel a lot weirder if I were breeding snakes or other nuisance animals," he says. "Tegu people are on a different level — they would sooner abandon their human child in the Everglades than their tegu."

As of now, the major players in the trapping game are the University of Florida, the FWC, the United States Geological Survey, and the National Park Service. Altogether, though, just $192,700 is allocated each year to address the tegu problem, according to the federal Everglades Restoration office.

Much of that comes from FWC, which has budgeted $130,000 for tegu management this year. Staffers are actively trapping tegus, as well as responding to reports that come in through their exotic-species hotline at 888-IVE-GOT1. The agency also contracts tegu removal and research through UF, which has 120 traps scattered throughout the Florida City area.

Though Irwin lets his catches live, tegus caught by researchers and state agencies are nearly always killed, except for a few that are fitted with geotracking devices for monitoring.

"Any of these organizations are pretty much obligated to euthanize if there's no other use for the animal," says Mike Martin, a wildlife biologist at UF.

Understanding the looming threat tegus pose doesn't necessarily make that task easier, though. "There are definitely times I want to take one home in my pocket," says Emily Gati, a biological intern who works with Martin.

Even Irwin feels torn between the affection he has developed for the lizards and the concern he feels about their ever-growing population. But the way he sees it, the tegus didn't ask to be here.

"It's not their fault," he says, "but since they are here, we've got to deal with it one way or another."

On an afternoon in early October, Martin and Gati drive from their office in Davie down to Florida City, where they spend five days a week conducting fieldwork on tegus. Gati paces the area in hiking boots and a long-sleeved mosquito shirt holding a device with a long antenna attached.

"We've got a signal!" she shouts.

For the past several years, the UF team has accounted for every lizard caught in its traps, logging where it was found, about how old it is, and in which type of trap it was caught. For the tegus tagged with geomonitoring devices, the researchers must pick up the signal and try to identify how far the lizards have moved over time.

There's still a lot that researchers here don't know about tegus in Florida, and unless they can find more funding, they may never know. It's still unclear how long tegus can live, how many years the females remain fertile, or even how many are out in the wild.

"If we did what we did with the Burmese pythons... then it's too late."

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Biologists also can't say for certain just how harmful tegus are to Florida's native species. Although they've captured videos of a tegu scarfing down a nest of alligator eggs, there's little hard data on how their rise has affected other animal populations.

"You absolutely cannot wait to answer that question," says Frank Mazzotti, the lead researcher at UF. "If we did what we did with the Burmese pythons, which is wait to see if we can tell if there's any impacts, then it's too late."

Mazzotti expects his team's research to last two to three more years. "If we can demonstrate that we're having an effect on the population in containing and reducing them, that's one of the reasons that people would invest," he says.

This year, tegu season has already wound down. Trappers call it quits each year around Halloween, which begins a four-month period of reptile hibernation called brumation. Around March, the lizards will begin to stir; by then, Irwin will be working for UF as a contractor.

"It's basically the same thing as what I do now, but I'll be moving existing traps into old areas I normally wouldn't trap in," he says.

For years, Irwin has hammered the state, saying he could seriously ramp up his efforts with just a bit of funding to buy some more traps and maybe hire an assistant.

"Give me $100,000 and, by God, I'll put the tegus away," says Irwin, whose upcoming contract doesn't come close to touching that number. "But so much of it comes down to the research end of it. There's lots of money for research and little money for removal. That's the problem that I have with all of it."

That kind of money doesn't fall out of the sky — Irwin knows his colleagues at UF have to play the game, so to speak, to get the financial backing.

"I know they need to show research to get more money, but wouldn't that money be better off spent removing tegus from the habitat?" he says. "At some point, we're really going to have to stop researching and start trapping."

There's evidence to his point that trapping early can prevent a looming crisis. After a reptile broker in Panama City Beach abandoned his cache of tegus in 2013, FWC launched a criminal investigation and began trying to catch the escapees. Wildlife officials eventually rounded up 34 emaciated and dehydrated tegus in a residential neighborhood; four more were found dead.

The case proved that stopping an invasive species is possible, provided wildlife officials are notified on time and jump into gear quickly. But it also highlights the lax system under which Florida animal dealers operate. Even after identifying the tegu owner, Bobby Hill, FWC officials charged him with only two misdemeanors related to animal cruelty. Three years later, the case is still pending in Bay County.

Critics say the state could be doing more to hold those sloppy breeders accountable. Krysko, the author of UF's paper on invasive reptiles, says anyone responsible for releasing nonnatives should be fined by the state for the cost of getting rid of them. An existing law in Florida requires anyone with a sea snake to file a "letter of credit" with FWC for $1 million in case of an escape — why not expand that idea to other kinds of creatures?

As of now, tegus are still one step behind the Burmese python on a chart called the invasion curve. The lizards are at the edge of Level 3, where there's still the possibility of containment, and inching toward Level 4, the stage at which they can no longer be eradicated. At that point, wildlife officials must figure out how to live with and manage the species.

Instead of seeing job security, though, Irwin instead sees bureaucracy once again slowing down the process. There's a problem, there's a solution, yet "the situation is growing in leaps and bounds."

"It's kind of an interesting ongoing tragedy," Irwin says. "I just don't see an easy way out."

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