It was an unseasonable cold snap by south Florida standards, a two-day spell of frigid temperatures pushed deep into the sunshine state by wintry conditions further north.
But for connoisseurs of exotic iguana meat it was the culinary equivalent of money growing on trees: reptiles whose flesh sells online for $60 a pound literally raining from the branches, frozen, for free. The unexpected harvest had residents dusting off old recipes for iguana tacos, curries, gumbos and soups.
Meanwhile, wildlife officials were hailing the great Florida iguana drop-off for other reasons, a welcome reduction in numbers of an invasive species blamed for widespread destruction of native flora and fauna.
The cold weather, the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission said in a social media post, offered a brief but “unique opportunity for people to easily remove iguanas from their properties”. While iguanas are not killed outright by the cold, the agency says, temperatures falling below 40F (4.5C) send the reptiles into a catatonic state that allows them to be rounded up with little effort and disposed of humanely.
By Wednesday night, some of the collected iguanas found themselves for sale online, amateur trappers around south Florida spotting an opportunity to make a quick dollar from their windfall.
“There’s a demand for the meat,” said Brian Wood, a hunter/trapper and owner of All American Gator, a company based in Dania Beach, Florida, which processes alligators for their hides and meat, and sells whole iguanas.
“Central and South Americans, folks from Trinidad, Vietnam, Indians … you know with our diverse population in south Florida, there’s a lot of folks that eat them. It’s a matter of it becoming more popular, they’re putting it in their restaurants.
“Some people won’t have anything to do with it, but there are a lot of foodies out there that want to try different things, and iguana is definitely on the list. It’s high in protein and low in fat. It’s super good for you.”
Under Florida law, iguana meat – known locally as pollo de los arboles (chicken of the trees) – cannot be sold commercially in processed form. Instead, consumers must process their own or purchase it from out-of-state suppliers such as the Exotic Meat Market of California, which takes imported meat from a production plant in Puerto Rico and offers it for sale boneless at $59.99 per pound plus shipping.
But there are no restrictions on what people can do with iguanas they capture themselves, or buy whole, as long as they are killed humanely. Anecdotally, backyard barbecues with iguana on the grill have become increasingly popular in southern Florida as reptile numbers have risen, and iguana cookbooks have proliferated.
“Most of the meat is on the legs, along the spine and on the tail, [but] rib meat is usually not worth the effort,” said Dr Bill Kern, professor of entomology and nematology and an iguana expert at the University of Florida’s institute of food and agricultural science. “De-boned iguana is very well suited to curries, soups, stews, gumbo and etouffee. It’s very gamey, it reminds me of alligator meat.”
To that end, Kern’s department published a blogpost with recipes for iguana hominy stew and iguana tacos and burritos, but warned amateur chefs inexperienced in cooking reptiles to prepare properly to avoid the risk of E coli and salmonella. “As long as you’re careful dressing the meat those things should be much less likely,” he said.
For Wood, the iguana trapper, the midweek cold snap was little more than a blip compared with previous freezes in 2010 and 2018 that killed tens of thousands of the non-native invaders.
“It’s short-lived, it’s only killing off a small percentage of what’s out there,” he said.
“Iguanas have become a real problem here but people have their heads stuck in the sand. I’ve been trying for years to be allowed to process them for food and if I could pay people to go out and get them we’d have a way of controlling the numbers.
“If they’re not worth anything then people won’t, other than some guys who go out and shoot them with air rifles and pellet guns for fun, or for crab bait. That’s minimal things being done compared to the millions we have.”
With temperatures rising back to the mid-70s by Thursday afternoon, the surviving iguanas had warmed up again and were “back to their activities like nothing had happened”, according to Wood.
But residents wondering what to do next time cold reptiles start dropping from trees can follow the advice from the SPCA’s wildlife care center in an online video entitled How to Handle a Frozen Iguana.
“Good citizens concerned about helping them should wrap them in a warm towel,” said Sherry Schlueter, the center’s executive director. “If you have a garage or a contained area put the animal there. When the iguana warms up sufficiently it will become mobile again.”