You may see a lizard, but some others see lunch

There are many ways to deal with the in­vaders in South Florida, and that in­cludes mak­ing an iguana bur­rito. We have in­struc­tions.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - Sun Sen­tinel (TNS)

FORT LAUDERDALE — While many peo­ple view South Florida’s in­va­sive iguana pop­u­la­tion as an an­noy­ance at best and a pan­demic at worst, Ish­meal As­son sees something else:

lunch.

The Fort Lauderdale res­i­dent and na­tive Trinida­dian con­sid­ers eat­ing igua­nas to be a way of life. Grow­ing up, As­son learned to roast the island crit­ters at road­side and back­yard gath­er­ings. Iguana is a sta­ple in the Caribbean, where the reptiles are a na­tive species and are known as “pollo de los ár­boles,” or chicken of the trees. Their meat con­tains more pro­tein than chicken, and members of some cul­tures be­lieve it has

medic­i­nal prop­er­ties.

In South Florida, As­son is hardly alone in his taste for cooked iguana. He has more than a dozen friends who eat the an­i­mal, and they fre­quently hunt them us­ing nets, snares and traps. “We are hav­ing a cook­out this weekend,” he said ear­lier this week.

As­son said he and his friends use a tra­di­tional method of pre­par­ing iguana. “First, we cut off the head, then roast (the body) on the fire. You have to roast it with the skin on be­cause it’s eas­ier to take the skin off once it’s roasted,” he said. “Then, we cut it up into

pieces and sea­son it with a lot of fresh pro­duce like chives and onions. I love to sea­son it with curry and hot pep­per, too. It tastes like chicken.”

As some­one who has eaten igua­nas his en­tire life, As­son still finds hu­mor in eat­ing the pre­his­toric-look­ing reptiles. “I prefer to eat it with the skin on,” he said, “be­cause then I know what I’m eat­ing. It kind of gives you a sense of hu­mor, like, ‘This is iguana,’ you know?”

Iguana by the pound

While As­son and other South Florida iguana lovers can nab the lizards for free and with lit­tle dif­fi­culty, their peers in other states or­der iguana meat from com­pa­nies such as Ex­otic Meat Mar­kets. An­shu Patak, owner of the Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany, told the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel thathe im­ports 10,000 pounds of iguana a month from Florida trap­pers.

He said that his com­pany, which sells such items as lion steak and rac­coon sausage, is help­ing to con­trol the iguana pop­u­la­tion.

“I am mak­ing iguana sausages, hot dogs, iguana burg­ers,” Pathak said. “I am try­ing to do any­thing and every­thing to make them palat­able to the public. The in­dus­try is only grow­ing.”

He said he sells the meat to cus­tomers and restau­rants across the United States, of­fer­ing bone­less meat for $59.99 per pound and whole, skin-on iguana for $49.99.

Pathak said he used to im­port igua­nas from Puerto Rico, but now gets them from trap­pers in Florida. He said that trap­pers some­times send the reptiles frozen, but mostly trans­port them alive and by air­plane.

“A lot of my cus­tomers want them whole, with guts in,” he said.

Pathak said his fa­cil­ity has been ap­proved by the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. When he re­ceives live igua­nas, he said, he puts them in a freezer to kill them.

The FDA did not re­spond to in­quiries about the con­sump­tion and com­mer­cial­iza­tion of iguana meat.

Sell­ing igua­nas re­quires a Florida wildlife li­cense, though a per­mit is not needed to pos­sess one, ac­cord­ing to Robert Klep­per, law-en­force­ment me­dia spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Com­mis­sion. There is no pro­hi­bi­tion on who can buy an iguana, Klep­per said.

‘You just have to try it’

Florida isn’t the only place where the lizards run ram­pant. Green igua­nas be­gan to take over Puerto Rico in the early 2000s, un­der­min­ing road­ways, chomp­ing on na­tive plants and ha­rass­ing is­lan­ders. It was when they started oblit­er­at­ing the island’s crops that res­i­dents asked the govern­ment for help.

A bounty of up to $6 per pound was placed on the crea­tures’ heads. Sim­i­lar to Florida’s python hunt, the Puerto Ri­can govern­ment is­sued per­mits in 2012 for pri­vate com­pa­nies to legally hunt igua­nas, said Daniel Galan-Ker­cado, who was sec­re­tary of Nat­u­ral Re­sources for Puerto Rico at the time.

Com­mer­cial­iz­ing iguana pro­vided an an­swer for Puerto Rico, but so far, no iguana-ex­port in­dus­try op­er­ates in Florida.

“You just have to try it, though,” said Brit­tany Peters, who dur­ing a re­cent trip to South Florida made an iguana-in­spired meal for the first time.

As an avid hunter, Peters lets none of the an­i­mals she kills go to waste. “If you’re go­ing to par­tic­i­pate in killing them, (iguana) is good enough, healthy enough and tasty enough that you should ab­so­lutely take the time to cook it, too,” Peters said.

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