More than 50 young Sister Islands Rock Iguanas are spending their early years in cages in Little Cayman as the Department of Environment and local residents try to protect them from feral cats on the island.
The Department of Environment says the iguanas, and other native animals and birds on Little Cayman, are in danger of extinction because of the cats, which it says is an invasive species on the island.
Initially 67 of the critically endangered iguanas were placed in cages, but due to space constraints, that number has been reduced to 56.
It may seem an extreme solution, but it’s the only way currently to guarantee that the iguanas are not killed by the hundreds of feral cats on the island, said Tanja Laaser, an intern with the DoE who, along with colleague Jane Haakonsson, is running this ‘head start’ programme.
Plans for a cull of the cats in early 2018 were halted when a court granted non-profits Cayman Islands Humane Society and Feline Friends a temporary injunction, preventing the DoE and the Department of Agriculture from attempting to eradicate the island’s wild cat population. The government departments and the charities have been in negotiations to try to come to an arrangement, but no agreement has yet been reached.
Laaser said DoE surveys have shown that there are almost no iguanas aged between 1 and 3 years left on Little Cayman, as the babies are being caught by cats.
One local resident, who asked not to be named, told the Compass, “Nobody like to kill things, but we have to consider which species is more important. We have so many endemic species, birds, iguanas, curly tailed lizards, anoles, everything native here being killed by the feral cats, which are only here because people brought them in as pets and then abandoned them.”
The resident said wild cats on Little Cayman lead “pretty terrible lives” and many appear to have parasites, are malnourished, and eating plastic and trash, adding “Letting them live in those conditions seems more inhumane than putting them down.”
DoE research officer Haakonsson launched the head start programme in September 2020, with baby iguanas that she, Laaser and volunteers retrieved from the wild. “We are giving them a head start as they are the most vulnerable here. We keep them safe from the cats,” Laaser said.
She recalled one hatchling dying in their hands, after its lungs had been punctured in an attack by a cat.
“This is not a long-term solution,” Laaser said. “Putting native species into cages while an invasive one is running free and killing more animals, that is just not right.”
She said the DoE had said from the very beginning that this is not a long-term programme, unlike the Blue Iguana Conservation programme on Grand Cayman, which, over two decades, brought that iguana species back from the brink of extinction. “This is only temporary,” she said. “Without the cats on the island, these iguanas would be able to fend for themselves.”
The head start programme began with 67 babies, even though the project technically only had capacity for 50, as there were only 50 cages. “It was the maximum capacity I could take care of by myself, without relying on voluntary help,” Laaser said. “I was able to get help from the local community, which is very supportive and interested in wildlife here.
“In some cases, we had to put two in one cage, but that’s not ideal. Even as hatchlings, iguanas are very territorial and they don’t like roommates. I tried to pick pairs and matchmake to find ones that actually liked each other.”
But as they grew bigger, they had to be separated, because the cages were too small for two growing iguanas. Eleven of the iguanas were released, and the DoE used six other cages, that had been bought as spare parts, to house others, leaving them with 56 of the animals in captivity.
The programme is a joint project between the DoE and the Little Cayman Museum, which is owned by the Tibbetts family on whose land the head start facility is located.
Laaser said the iguanas, now a year old, are still too young to be safely released.
“They would need to be 2-3 years old [when] they would not be such an easy target for the cats,” she said. “Also we don’t have the capacity to keep them for longer than that, as the cages would be too small for them. If we keep them for longer, we’d need to build a whole new facility with much bigger cages.”
She said the DoE had said from the very beginning that this is not a long-term programme, unlike the Blue Iguana Programme on Grand Cayman, which over two decades brought that iguana species back from the brink of extinction. “This is only temporary,” she said. “Without the cats on the island, these iguanas would be able to fend for themselves.”
Laaser explained that, until the last few years when the cats emerged, the only natural predators rock iguanas had were large birds and two species of snake on the island.
“The iguanas are very naive,” she said. “They don’t realise that the cats are a danger to them so they’re very easy targets for the feral cats. It’s not imprinted on their DNA. They don’t know that they should run away. They don’t know what cats are.”
Laaser forages for food for the animals each day, gathering fruits and leaves, which she chops up and mixes together.
“The only thing we can do to save the native species here is put the iguanas in cages. But you can’t put wild birds in cages, and they’re being targetted by the cats as well,” she said.
Falling population numbers
According to population surveys carried out by the DoE, in 2019, there were an estimated 1,786 rock iguanas on the island – a 39% decline compared to a 2015 survey, which showed an estimated population of 2,915; and a 54% decline compared to 2014, when an estimated 3,847 rock iguanas were counted.
“So, in four years, we lost 1,000 iguanas,” Laaser said. “That means that if nothing is done, in another four years, there will be just 800 iguanas. And four years after that, no iguanas.”
Little Cayman resident Marc Pothier, who took the photo of the cat with the baby iguana in its mouth featured above, said he believes this is the same cat he photographed, again with an iguana in its mouth, a year ago. “Imagine how many times this is happening all over the island without people seeing it,” he told the Compass.
Just a day after the photo was taken, another resident photographed the same cat, again with an baby iguana in its mouth.
Of the rock iguana head start programme, Pothier said, “I believe that this system should not be necessary. Keeping iguanas in cages so that feral cats, running wild on Little Cayman, don’t eat them is kind of like us collecting as many reef fish as we can and putting them in an aquarium and then letting lionfish take over the reef. I dare say that way more work – also volunteer work – has been done to control the lionfish than has been done to control the cats.”
He urged those blocking efforts to cull the cats on the island to “re-examine their priorities”.
The animal charities that oppose the culling plan argue that a ‘trap, neuter, vaccinate and release’ approach could be used to control the feral cat population, which would eventually disappear.
But, Pothier said, “Capture, neuter, and release doesn’t work because neutered cats still need to eat.”
He added, “If friends/protectors of the cats prefer that these feral cats don’t get euthanized humanely (especially the really sick and mangy ones) – perhaps they would agree to send us several/many cages and we can ship the cats (in the cages) to Grand Cayman where they can perhaps be nursed back into good health and new homes found for them,” he said in an email to the Compass.
In a Facebook posting Thursday, 9 Sept., the Department of Environment stated, “Little Cayman is currently experiencing an environmental crisis. The island is overrun with a mass of invasive feral cats. These animals are killing our country’s native and protected wildlife, including the red-footed booby, the brown booby and the Sister Islands Rock Iguanas. DoE scientists estimate that some of these species will be extinct on Little Cayman within just a few years if a viable, humane control programme isn’t introduced ASAP. The situation is urgent.”
The Compass reached out to the Humane Society and Feline Friends, both of which stated that they had no comment to make at this stage.
Department of Agriculture Director Brian Crichlow said, in response to queries, “The Department of Agriculture is acutely aware of the threat posed by feral cats to native and endangered species in the Sister Islands. However, as the matter of the control of feral cats in Little Cayman remains before the courts, it would not be appropriate for the Department to comment at this time.”
Manager of the Department of Environment’s Legislation Implementation and Coordination Unit, John Bothwell, told the Compass, “Discussions between the Government and appellant legal representatives are nearly exhausted and we are hopeful that an agreement in principle has nearly been concluded. When that is reached, or if it cannot be reached soon, the Judicial Review will have to go back to the court for resolution.”
In the meantime though, he said, “the problem of feral cats and their predation on endangered and native species has continued to grow”.
“Without effective control of these introduced predators we are at risk of losing local populations of native and endemic species, as has occurred in other places around the world where cats have been allowed to roam wild without being removed,” he said.