Chicken of the trees: Eating Florida’s iguanas

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

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 Pathak, owner of the California-based company, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he 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.

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