BIG PINE KEY - First it was the federally protected deer -- jostling for potato chips, picking through trash cans, lolling on lawns.
Now, residents here say another pest -- this one with scales and dozens of pointy teeth -- is dining on flower and vegetable gardens and freaking out the house pets.
''If you aren't doing battle with the deer or the insects, you are now doing battle with the iguanas,'' said Scott Wade, executive director of the Big Pine Athletic Association and manager of Monroe County's Blue Heron Park on Big Pine.
The iguanas -- unleashed into the wilds of the Florida Keys at some point by a human -- are definitely not native to this subtropical region.
Now hundreds, maybe thousands of them, sunbathe on rocks, climb trees and lay clutches of eggs throughout this island chain.
''No one really noticed them and then all of a sudden they are everywhere,'' said Becky Arnold, animal shelter director for the Florida Keys SPCA. ``They don't have any natural predators other than cars and the occasional dog.''
Lately, it's not unusual for a five-foot-long lizard to stop traffic on the two-lane portion of U.S. 1 that runs through the Keys, forcing motorists to brake for a few minutes while scaly crosses the road.
The tree-dwelling green iguana -- whose scientific name is Iguana iguana -- is native to the tropical forests of Mexico and Central and South America.
Worries over potential harm the creature may be causing native vegetation and species have prompted environmentalists to seek an assessment from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
''The question is, are they causing a problem in the natural landscape?'' said Chris Bergh, conservation program manager for The Nature Conservancy's South Florida and Florida Keys Program and chairman of the Florida Keys ''Invasive Exotics'' Task Force. Bergh recently drafted a letter asking commission biologists to provide more scientific information about the lizard.
''There is plenty of evidence that they are causing problems in people's residential and commercial landscapes, just from the destruction of vegetation,'' Bergh said.
A commission spokesman, however, said he wasn't sure what his agency could add.
''I really don't know anything about these iguanas, except that they are out there,'' spokesman Jim Huffstodt said. ``If they are reproducing in the wild, there is not much we can do. Once they are here, it's very difficult to do anything.''
The lizards, Bergh said, love to swim, tend to defecate near water -- meaning boats, seawalls, and Jacuzzi platforms -- and are known to carry nasty germs, such as salmonella, that can be transferred to humans.
They munch on foliage and flower blossoms, especially bright-colored ones like hibiscus. Fearless climbers with sharp toenails, they can easily scale treetops that are out of reach for other species.
``The friends group for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here in the Keys planted a butterfly garden at the Blue Hole park on Big Pine.
''Immediately afterward, the green iguanas moved in and ate pretty much everything,'' Bergh said.
FANS AND FOES
Lovers of heat and humidity, the wild iguanas have a few fans and a number of detractors.
''It's like the chickens in Key West,'' said Charles Phinizy, a Keys-based construction project manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. ``I have seen them up and down the road squashed. I will tell you that they used to be a rarity.''
Dennis Truse, a member of Iguana Rescue of Central Florida, said the lizards are unfairly left to fend for themselves after their owners abandon them.
''People are not taking responsibility,'' Truse said. ``They get too big and they don't want them anymore and let them go and the next thing you know your neighbors are complaining about an iguana on the porch.
''That's the problem: People don't have respect for the iguanas,'' he said.
``They can be very docile. It's neglect that makes them mean.''
So, what can a person do if they have an out-of-control iguana situation in the neighborhood?
''We've been getting phone calls about them from people up and down the Keys,'' said Kim Gabel, an agent with the University of Florida-Monroe County Extension Service.
One resident produced a helpful annotation of twenty kinds of plants gobbled by an iguana that took up residence next to her garden.
''What can you plant that's not going to be their salad?'' Gabel asked. ``We are still trying to find that out.''
Folks buy the critters when they are adorable little lizard babies and panic when they begin to grow like Godzilla, Gabel said.
''People need to understand that having an iguana for a pet is a commitment of at least 12 years, just like a cat or a dog,'' she said. ``While they are cute and bright green when newborn, they will grow to six feet long at maturity.''
If all else fails, you can try to capture them. But watch out -- they bite and roll like gators!
IF YOU MUST TRAP ONE
A recent extension service article offered some pointers on the process. It goes something like this:
Wear thick gloves, throw a cast net over the iguana, slam a towel on top of that, watch out for teeth, claw and tail, slide that baby into a 32-gallon trash can, and CLOSE THE LID!
The other alternative is to bait a live trap with fruit and flowers.
Whatever you do, don't grab the critter by the tail, which may detach.
Also, don't be surprised if your prey pulls a stunt similar to Jurassic Park.
''They rise right up on hind legs and take off like you see on the Discovery Channel,'' warned Wade, of Big Pine's Blue Heron Park.
Once you have an iguana in your sights, Animal Control's Arnold suggests you do not follow the lead of a Little Torch Key man who was issued a criminal summons last year after blowing off the head of one with a pellet gun.
''It's illegal to kill anything in an inhumane manner,'' Arnold said. ``It's legal to kill them humanely but there are very strict guidelines for what's humane. Drowning them is not humane. Beating them to death is not humane.''
''Lethal injection,'' he said, if you're either a state-certified euthanasia technician or a licensed veterinarian.
Arnold prefers to place the lizards in good homes.
''People are welcome, if they have them, to bring them into us,'' she said.