I have lived with iguanas for more than forty years. We've moved many times, from east coast to west and back again, and I've set up a dozen different apartments so we could all live together comfortably.
There was a year when I didn't have any iguanas. It wasn't a good one.
Lizard Food, Etc.
I am fortunate and grateful to have these iguanas living in my home and I do my best to give them a good life.
Here is Che in his dormer. He's a Cuban iguana, Cyclura nubila. This set-up shows the basics of what iguanas need if they're living in an apartment, or house. 1) Heat and full-spectrum lighting. The dome fixture has a 100 watt mercury vapor bulb, which gives heat as well as UV A & B. The fluorescent fixture has 2 "HO-T5" 12% bulbs. The stone he's basking on holds heat nicely, and there is a small heat mat under the slate shingle beside it, so that he can choose how warm he wants to be --from 80-110F-- and how much ultraviolet light he's getting. 2) Privacy: There is also a heat mat inside his hide box. 3) Fresh water to drink: that's his little water bowl attached to the edge of his shelf. 4) Room to roam: This dormer is in a 10 x 12 room that has a radiant heat stone floor. Che can climb down on a ladder made out of a cage part from a dog travel kennel. 5) Good food: The greens on the towel are chopped collards --more about that below.
That's Ava, above, left, with her view of the boys, Emo (below her, just the corner of his pen showing), and Sebastian to the right, basking under his mercury vapor lights. They are rhino iguanas, Cyclura cornuta. Each morning Ava climbs up on top of her hide box and shakes and bobs her head at the boys. They respond with head shaking and bobbing --their way of talking to each other. Sebastian has two hide boxes, the one he's on, and another under the 4' fluorescent light. The cages are collapsible dog kennels, which he can climb up and down. His pen is 9 x 11, and on the floor are a couple of big flat rocks and his water bowl. Ava climbs down that ladder at the lower center of the photo, and she walks to the other end of the barn to sit in the sun coming through the doors that open to the deck, seen in the photo just below. During spring and summer, the doors are open and Ava goes outside. The deck is nearly 40' long and faces south-east. At opposite ends are two 5 x 10 modified dog kennels for Sebastian and Emo, with Ava having the space between. By mid February, we’ll start getting sunny days –no clouds, no wind—and the lizards can go out on the deck for an hour. By April they can be out all day and I’ll put up the canvas shades, so they don’t overheat.
Here is the front of the barn facing south-east, and the two decks. Above is Sebastian's sunning cage and Emo's is at the other end. Sunning cages for Che and Luna are on the deck below. The pile of soil is about to be pushed back onto what will become the hugelkultur garden. In the foreground are dandelions, bolted turnip, chickweed, yellow dock, and garlic mustard which are all good food for iguanas.
Spring plants for iguanas: dandelion leaves & flowers, yellow dock, wild strawberry flowers, chickweed, mullein, broad & long-leaf plantain, clover, colt's foot, burdock, wild raspberry leaf (tender leaves without barbs) and grass.
Summer plants: dandelion, wild lettuce, clover, redleg, mallow, colt's foot, plantain, grass, lamb's quarters, bolted garlic mustard. I use a Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants to identify what I find. Each year I learn about new plants to add to the iguanas’ diet. It’s not really scientific, but I always taste the plants. When winter cress blooms it is very bitter, and the lizards don’t seem to like it. I don't feed them anything I can't identify and have not tasted. There are just a few dangerous plants, like the deadly nightshade in the uppermost right corner of the picture.
These are September foods, including some cultivated, some wild: collards, red Russian kale, squash flowers, and nasturtium leaves and flowers, dock, lamb's quarters, chickweed, dandelion, redleg,
I'm about to make a meal for the iguanas with slim pickings! It's February and I've just been to Willow Wisp Organic Farm to pick rye grass, which is a cover crop that stays alive in the frozen ground under the snow. When I brush off the snow and pick it I can smell the fresh greenness. Left of the rye grass is arugula from the farm's hoop house, and then chickweed, which survives a hard freeze. There's some organic parsley I found at the supermarket. Each winter, through December, I pick collards in the field and by January I order organic ones from the health food store in town. (I have a case on order, but they haven't come in yet, because of the snow storm!) In the metal bowl are dried plants that I bought from FRONTIER herbs. There are nettles, dandelion, mullein, alfalfa, colt's foot, and passionflower leaves and I keep this mix in bags in the freezer for winter eating. Everything but the arugula goes into the food processor and gets pulsed to a mash. Then I add the pre-soaked dried mango, which is at the lower left of the picture. Sometimes I soak dried figs, or papaya, all organic, unsweetened, and un-sulphured. I may also add some raw winter squash, like butternut, or pumpkin. Once the greens and fruit are all mixed up in a mash, I make these egg-shaped balls of the stuff and hand-feed them to the lizards and then, they get a salad of coarsely chopped greens –collard, arugula, totsoi, turnip, and watercress when I can get it. Making the mash ensures that each lizard gets a balanced meal since they can't pick out their favorites.
In the summer, I also make a mash, using lots of weeds and mango, but I don’t add the dried plants, because I’m getting plenty of fresh ones.
The lizards eat a salad of coarsley chopped greens every day, and they get the mash 3-4 times a week, year-round.
Here's a bit from an article about weeds, and why I'm a big believer in them as a great food for herbivorous reptiles: "... According to author Jo Robinson's recent book Eating on the Wild Side, the same wild edible plants that we call weeds tend to be loaded with phytonutrients... Recent studies suggest that eating phytonutrients helps humans fend off four of what Robinson calls 'our modern scourges': cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and dementia...As Cornell food science professor Rui Hai Liu put it in a 2004 paper, phytonutrients are 'best acquired through whole-food consumption, not from expensive dietary supplements.' The problem is that the foods that contain more of them tend to be bitter, not sweet. And according to Robinson, humanity's 10,000-year agricultural adventure has been all about breeding away bitterness and selecting for sweetness, starchiness, and fat—and thus has been a kind of millennia-long war against the very nutrients that made early humans the healthy, vibrant creatures capable of inventing agriculture in the first place. As a result, she writes, 'the more palatable our fruits and vegetables became…the less advantageous they were for our health.' It's not that common supermarket varieties don't contain phytonutrients—it's just that, Robinson shows, they have many fewer than their wild ancestors and other plants (like...weeds) that haven't been subjected to thousands of years of selective breeding..."
When Sebastian was a baby, I held him close to my face, so that he would get used to it, and to my breathing and my kisses. I keep in mind that these iguanas are wild animals. A big iguana can do serious damage. They have many sharp teeth and strong jaws. But no iguana bites without a reason. I don't get bitten, because I pay attention to their body language, and their eyes for signals that they are feeling threatened, or agitated, often by the smell of a receptive female iguana, or another male iguana, or even from human pheremones.
Living with iguanas in our home, we’ve learned to never leave socks around. One time Sebastian ate a big wool sock, which had to be surgically removed. Here's how I figured it out: a) there was only one sock hanging on the drying rack, b) his belly was the size and shape of a football, c) he was back-striking with his arm, which meant that he had a tummy ache. So I loaded him into the truck and we drove up to Ithaca, to the Cornell Veterinary Hospital.
Iguanas are tetrachromats, which means that they have a fourth set of cone cells in their eyes. In ultraviolet light, they can see substances (like pheremones) and variations in color that we cannot. Without the right light, their bones and organs will not grow properly and their world is dim and depressing. I check the mercury vapor bulbs with a Solarmeter. If the UVB output goes below 70 microwatts per square centimeter, I change the bulb (I would change bulbs more often if my lizards did not get to go outside for several months each year).
This is Sebastian when he was 6-7 months old and we had just brought him home. Whenever he went inside his hut (the thing he's sitting on), I didn’t go after him. I wanted him to feel safe, and like he could hide if he wanted to. The picture isn't so clear, because Sebastian is inside a 10 gallon tank and there's some salt spray from his sneezes on the glass, plus the reflection of a branch and bromeliad. For the first year of his life, while he was very small, he needed to be inside an enclosure, so that he wouldn't get lost, or hurt. Soon after this picture was taken I built him a small cage, so that he could get the sunshine coming through the window. We took out the window glass and replaced it with Solacryl, which lets in most of the ultraviolet spectrum of light.
This is the nursery, where the iguanas lived until they grew big enough and we moved into the new barn.
This is Emo. He hatched without a tail --just a stump-- and blind in his left eye. But these birth defects have not slowed him down one bit! We also call him "Mobile Unit" because he is always going places. It's a good thing that our barn has a lot of open space! Emo is growing very fast. It is hard to tell by the photo, but he weighs at least 16 pounds.
Luna, our other Cuban iguana, is particularly curious and active. An iguana with this kind of energy can easily get lost, or hurt. For instance, she could break a toe coming down the ladder, if her nails get too long. It’s important to cut claws carefully, because if it hurts, iguanas remember and then nail-trimming is a traumatic experience.
Around the time this picture was taken, Luna got outside. We didn’t have much time, because at night, a raccoon, or fox, or owl would have her. We knew a corrections officer, who had a blood hound. He came with the dog “Tato,” and we showed him Luna’s slate from her perch, and a place on the rug where she had peed, and in half an hour, the dog found her, hiding down in the tall grass, just fifty yards from the barn.
In Temple Grandin's book ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN, she talks about what captive animals need to be happy. The same things, mostly, are true for iguanas, especially iguanas of the genus Cyclura. Iguanas have social and biological drives and captive ones need to come out of their enclosure every day to keep their digestion healthy and to alleviate boredom. Ideally, iguanas would have the opportunity to engage others of their own species, and this is where things can get complicated in the confines of an apartment, or house. Grandin says, “…the more freedom you give an animal to act naturally the better, because normal behaviors evolved to satisfy core emotions...if you can’t give an animal the freedom to act naturally, then you should think about how to satisfy the emotion that motivates the behavior by giving the animal other things to do.” [pp. 3-4]
When Sebastian is bored, sometimes he digs inside his hide box. He needs to come out of his pen and he wants to engage the other lizards, which leads to fighting and breaking things(!) I block him from doing that, and he gets frustrated, so I have to find other things for him to do, like vanquish his favorite sweater, which he bites and shakes the way a dog does a toy. After that he explores the downstairs area, going behind the couch, digging in the aloe plant, drinking from the cat's water bowl, climbing up on the chair and getting petted and finally having a few slices of apple or some berries in the kitchen.
Though contact between our iguanas is very limited, they see each other, smell each other, and talk to each other with their head and body language. (They make faces at each other!)
There is SO much more to say about my amazing, beautiful iguanas. I am always learning about who they are, and how I can make their lives in captivity better.
This is a fabulous book! I highly recommend it, especially if you want to learn more about West Indian rock iguanas, and the Blue Iguanas I wrote about in BLUE IGUANA.
"Set on a small island in the Caribbean, this true story introduces you to the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana, and a remarkably successful conservation programme. Spanning both natural and actual history, the author speaks of his own experiences as he fights to save the Blue Iguana and its wild, rocky habitat...Based in a tropical paradise undergoing a transformation so profound that humans and wildlife are now in heart-breaking conflict, here is a story of great hope."