Invasive iguanas cause problems in the Floridian ecosystem. Mike Kimmel — the Python Cowboy — works to take them off the landscape.
Mike Kimmel, the Python Cowboy, was in sniper mode while hunting iguanas with a lizard in the crosshairs of his scope.
In a south Florida community overrun by invasive iguanas, Kimmel works to put the lizards in check. So, with his scope zeroed in on the head of an iguana, Kimmel made sure he had a safe background, eased a finger to the trigger of his air rifle, and locked in.
And then the worst thing possible happened.
“Right as I’m pulling the trigger, some guy comes up right next to me and is like ‘Whaddya shooting?’” Kimmel says. “It just scared the living hell out of me. What makes you think that was the right moment to come up and ask me a question?”
Mike Kimmel’s Quest to Remove Invasive Species
Despite his frustration, Kimmel had to be polite and engage in conversation. Since iguanas are overrunning the neighborhoods, golf courses, communities, and canals of south Florida — the places where Kimmel is hired to remove them — he constantly has to deal with people while he works. It’s to be expected when Kimmel stalks iguanas in a neighborhood with a beefed up air rifle.
“I have to be nice and present myself right. I want to have a good interaction with people and explain why these iguanas are bad news and why I’m killing them,” he says.
And the iguana that Kimmel had in his scope before he was interrupted? It was one of the rare ones that got away.
Kimmel, known as the Python Cowboy on social media, owns Martin County Trapping and Wildlife Rescue and is a state-licensed wildlife trapper. He handles everything from wild hogs to Burmese pythons, but lately the booming iguana population has commanded much of his time.
The extra work is good for Kimmel financially, but it’s also a task that has become crucial for protecting Florida’s native wildlife and landscape.
How Iguanas Got to Florida
Iguana populations exploded in Florida a decade ago due to the exotic pet trade. As lizards got too big and owners released them, or they escaped, iguanas established breeding populations all over south and central Florida. They consume vegetation, including expensive ornamental landscaping and native plants, defecate on docks and in swimming pools, dig under foundations and into levees, even displacing burrowing owls and gopher tortoises from their dens. As a result, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows iguanas to be killed year-round, affording hunters like Kimmel plenty of opportunity to chip away at the population.
Considering males can reach six feet from head to tail and weigh almost 20 pounds, natural predators are few. “We see raccoons, coyotes, and bobcats prey on iguanas a bit, but the population is so massive it has no effect,” Kimmel says. “The only predator that’s going to make a difference is us.”
Weapon of Choice? Air Rifles Rule the Roost
Even though it’s a job for Kimmel, he admits that shooting iguanas is fun. His air rifle of choice is a “Python Cowboy Edition” EDgun Leshiy 2 from EDgun West, based in California. The .30 caliber air rifle is topped with Sig Sauer optics, an upgraded tank and rail, and a larger suppressor for keeping things quiet while popping iguanas in residential areas.
The air rifles are deadly accurate—a critical factor when the kill zone on an iguana is basically the size of a thumbtack. “When I’m on a golf course or in a community, my shots are 30 to 70 yards. On the guided hunts, I put clients at 15 to 30 yards because half of these people can’t shoot for shit,” Kimmel says. “You’re basically shooting at an eyeball, and if you don’t shoot an iguana in the brain and destroy the brain, they’re going to run.”
Leaving wounded iguanas to die isn’t an option for Kimmel. First of all, it’s not humane or professional, and secondly he wouldn’t stay in business if he left dead iguanas to rot on a golf course or community.
Backup Weapon of Choice? Dogs!
To reduce the risk of a wounded iguana getting away, Kimmel employs a secret weapon: dogs. Otto is a German wirehaired pointer, and Catfish is a Deutsch drahthaar, and they’re both fearless when it comes to pouncing on an iguana and bringing it back for Kimmel to dispatch. Not only are the dogs a vital tool for Kimmel’s war on iguanas, they’ve also become stars on his social media platforms, which have grown as rapidly as Florida’s iguana population.
Using his phone or a shoulder-mounted camera to film his hunts, Kimmel’s videos have become popular with his 170,000 YouTube subscribers and 187,000 Instagram followers. His first foray into social media, however, caused a bit of an uproar when Kimmel began selling iguana meat and hides on Facebook Marketplace. “I was getting hate mail and death threats because people didn’t know these things are invasive. They thought I was killing people’s pets,” he says. “When I started posting videos to show what I’m doing and why, the whole public outlook changed.”
Putting Hunted Iguanas to Good Use
Kimmel kills iguanas by the thousands over the course of a year, and the demand for his service hasn’t slowed down. With a bounty that large, Kimmel has found multiple uses for iguana carcasses. They are good to eat, he says, and if you bleed them out right and cook them properly, the meat tastes like frog legs. But Kimmel admits he tires of iguana meat at the dinner table.
“I’m killing 20 to 50 every day, and I can only eat so many damn lizards. So almost all of them I feed to feral hogs that I capture alive and bring back to my ranch,” Kimmel says. “I fatten them up on iguanas, python meat, Muscovy duck, Egyptian geese, all kind of invasives, and then I sell them as livestock.”
The skins from the larger iguanas, which he calls dinosaurs, make excellent leather and used for wallets, bracelets, purses, and even M1911 pistol grips for sale. Still, with expert hunters like Kimmel sniping iguanas on a daily basis, it’s unlikely the lizards will ever be eradicated from Florida. At this point, Kimmel says, the best thing to do is manage iguanas in the places that want to address the problem. And as Kimmel patrols the parks, golf courses, and communities with his air rifle and dogs, he knows there’s always someone who doesn’t understand why he’s shooting lizards out of the trees.
But, There’s Always Some Pushback
“I get the occasional Karen that comes out screaming and yelling, and usually they’re snowbirds from New York or New Jersey who have no idea what I’m doing,” Kimmel says.
“I’ll talk to them, and usually they change their tone, but sometimes they just want a reason to be mad. Either way I just roll with it and keep killing iguanas.”