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Animal cruelty is a sad aspect of our society. Every year, countless animals are neglected, abused or abandoned, killed or left to die by their thoughtless, selfish owners. According to a statistic published by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), “Approximately 5 million to 7 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year, and approximately 3 million to 4 million are euthanized” (ASPCA.org). We’ve all seen the television commercials and the donation cans at the grocery store depicting sad images of injured cats and dogs. While cats and dogs make up the majority of neglected, abused or abandoned pets in America, many other pet species fall victim to some form of animal cruelty in the United States, including the green iguana.
The green iguana has become a popular pet choice over the years, but sadly, most people don’t realize how difficult it is to properly care for this exotic creature. My recent interview with Debra Williams, a member of the International Green Iguana Society and volunteer for the Green Iguana Society Kids’ Club, has shed light on the problem of neglected and abandoned iguanas in America. According to this knowledgeable reptile expert and animal activist, the process of selling, purchasing and raising iguanas in this country is riddled with cruelty, misinformation and neglect, “leading to the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of pet iguanas per year” (Williams). Learning about, supporting, and spreading awareness about iguana cruelty and proper iguana ownership is important because, as Williams made clear during our interview, the cruelty these creatures are often met is not only sad and infuriating but often unintentional and completely preventable with the right education and knowledge.
According to Williams, the biggest problem with iguana cruelty is the fact that many iguana owners are unaware that they are neglecting or mistreating this unique reptilian pet. “Each year,” Williams says, “hundreds of iguanas die.”
If you Google ‘iguana’ on the internet, you’ll see pages and pages of forum posts from confused iguana owners wondering what’s wrong with their pet or why their pet died. These people aren’t the Michael Vicks of the reptilian world. They aren’t consciously mistreating the animal. They are simply undereducated about caring for these exotic creatures and don’t realize that their unpreparedness for iguana ownership is killing their pet” (Williams).
The International Green Iguana Society to which Williams belongs is a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about proper iguana care. Like Debra Williams, the organizations’ members seek to educate people about the responsibilities of owning an iguana and about proper iguana care. This might not seem very important, but raising awareness is the most important thing we can do to reduce the neglect, abandonment and mistreatment of these magnificent animals. “Baby iguanas are commonly sold in pet stores and are even often given as carnival prizes throughout the United States,” says Williams. People see the small, green lizards and impulsively purchase or win one, never realizing that their new baby iguana is “most likely wild-caught and will grow up to 7 feet long over its lifespan of 20-plus years” (Williams) People don’t realize the responsibility that cute baby lizard will bring to their lives. “Many people jump into the commitment of iguana ownership and then they find out that it was more than they can truly handle” (greeniguanasociety.org). According to Mrs. Williams, this is the number one reason why so many iguanas end up abandoned or dead.
According to Debra Williams, most iguanas that end up in pet shops have been caught in the wild for sale as household pets. “These creatures are literally plucked from South American rainforests, tossed in a burlap sack and flown into the states for sale in pet shops. During this process, they are mishandled and stuffed together in darkness, cold and unfed.” By the time they reach the glass pet shop tank, they are cold and scared. “This makes the animal appear docile,” Williams says, which in turn makes pet shoppers think the iguana is a simple, low-maintenance animal. “But the reality is that the animal is simply scared and unwell” (Williams). So what happens is that often, someone sees a small, quiet, low-laying iguana in a pet store, and impulsively buys the animal along with a few iguana care supplies, and brings it home. They do not realize that the iguana appears passive because it is either scared or unwell. They do not realize that the supplies they purchased to care for the iguana can actually do the animal more harm than good. They do not realize that the animal has a long lifespan and will grow rapidly over the next several months and years, turning into a large creature with dangerous teeth and claws. And before long, the animal either dies from improper care, neglect or complete abandonment.
Iguanas are incredibly difficult to care for. The iguanas that survive the capture and captivity process usually won’t live beyond three years. Many times, iguanas die slowly and painfully in their owner’s care or in the wild if they’ve been abandoned (Williams).
So what, exactly, makes caring for an iguana so difficult, and how do they end up victims of animal cruelty by well-intentioned pet lovers? This was my million dollar question for Mrs. Williams. According to her, iguanas have very complicated diet needs, require specific space dimensions and temperature gradients in their aquariums and also need expert handling as they mature and become aggressive. Providing adequate food and habitat conditions for these creatures is not only expensive, but laborious. Furthermore, many iguana owners are not properly trained to handle these wild animals, which become increasingly aggressive, strong and dangerous as they grow. As a result, many pet iguanas die because their basic needs are not being met, unbeknownst to their owners, or they are “freed” out into the wild when they become too difficult to house or care for and end up dying out in the cold where little of their natural food sources are available. “People just don’t realize how complicated, time consuming and expensive iguana ownership can be. If more people were aware of these facts, we’d have much fewer iguana deaths occurring per year” (Williams).
In conclusion, animal lovers or anyone else who is saddened by the problem of animal cruelty and neglect should help support the Green Iguana Society, because doing so can spread awareness and reduce the neglect- and abandonment-related fatalities of the fascinating green iguana. Support can be in the form of a monetary donation, but people can also support this organization by visiting their website, helping to distribute the organization’s printable educational literature, reporting instances of iguana abuse or neglect, adopting rescued iguanas (if properly prepared to do so) and, most importantly, utilizing the resources that the Society makes available through its website if a person or someone they know is considering iguana ownership. Over the years, the Green Iguana Society has made great strides in educating the public about iguana ownership and cruelty as well as rescuing injured, sick or abandoned iguanas. This is an important step in the fight against animal cruelty and it deserves as much attention as our more common four-legged animal companions receive.