EnRICHing the iguana/keeper relationship through accurate care information and compassionate re-homing.
The Taming Process
For being a wild animal, the iguana has an amazing capacity to be tamed. Understanding how they think will help you socialize your iguana. Lots of patience and consistent training will pay off in dividends of a pet that is a joy to have.
Let’s face it. You are attempting to train a wild animal that is at the bottom of the food chain. If it doesn’t take a liking to you immediately, don’t take it personally. Gaining the trust of a wild animal is not easy. Having an iguana in the house is like having a two year old and an adolescent at the same time! Power struggles will ensue if you have the wrong attitude. Keep in mind these important aspects of the green iguanas nature.
Iguanas are extremely territorial. They are not necessarily social animals, like dogs. But in the wild they have a society and a hierarchy. Within a group of iguanas, there will be the Alpha male who oversees his harem of females. His job is to protect the females from predators whenever possible and, naturally, from other iguana males. In the harem, is the Alpha female. She keeps all the subordinate females in line by getting the best basking area, access to the best feeding areas, and naturally, mating with the best male.
Another key to taming your iguana is understanding how they communicate. They don’t have vocal cords and so communicate through body language. You will discover that your iguana has a distinct personality. The following is a list of common iguana behaviors and what they’re likely to mean. Head bobbing. You will see lots of head bobbing. It’s the most common way of communicating. Typically males will head bob more often, and for no apparent reason. Females will bob if there’s a clear message to be made. I’ve seen my male iguana, Pumpkin, in his enclosure, bob his head, for whatever reason, I don’t know. But the females will usually only bob if one sees another. The friendly, “Hello, I see you” bob is one in which the head is lifted up, then down, then up and down again. I’ve noticed my females will bob their heads in a more circular fashion.
Shudder bobbing. This time the iguana is shaking its head faster in an up and down motion. This can mean that the iguana is making a stronger statement. “Hey, this is my territory, and don’t you forget it!”
The dewlap. That’s the flap of skin hanging from the chin to the chest. A fine bone called the “hyoid” controls it. The dewlap is an amazing multi-functional piece of equipment. If the iguana is too warm, it will deploy its dewlap to capture cooler air in an effort to cool down its blood. The same applies for being too cool. That’s why you will see your iguana with its dewlap out first thing in the morning. As a communication tool, it’s very versatile. A hatchling or subordinate will keep its dewlap tucked up under its chin. This is a submissive gesture that says, “I’m nobody, don’t pay any attention to me.” However, if the iguana feels threatened, it will deploy its dewlap, and even a hatchlings dewlap will stand out like a sail. This is an attempt at looking larger.
Another attempt to look larger and more threatening is puffing itself up with air. The iguana will ready its tail for whipping at this point, by lifting slightly at the base of the tail. Your iguana might open its mouth and even hiss at you. These are clear signs your iguana does not wish to be bothered. Consider yourself warned! Any more attempts to get closer could result in getting bitten. Time to back off with the training for a while to let your iguana settle down. However, the green iguana is very intelligent. It will remember that you backed down and subsequent training sessions might end up like the first. There is a fine line between respecting your iguanas’ space, and asserting your own authority. Remember, there is always an Alpha. It’s your responsibility to establish you as Alpha. This doesn’t mean being vicious or cruel. If it turns out that you have an Alpha type iguana, be prepared to endure power struggles. Remember what I said about having an iguana in the house is like having a two year old and an adolescent? It’s not productive to get into a power struggle with a two year old, and the same goes for an iguana!
If you’ve adopted an older iguana that’s been tamed, you still need to handle and interact with it on a daily basis to keep it tame. But you won’t think of this as a chore, you will be too fascinated with your iguana. Whether you have a hatchling or older iguana, consistent, daily interaction is what will result in a socialized iguana. Depending on the iguanas’ personality, and prior circumstances, it will take up to a year to bring your iguana to any higher level of socialization. Keep your training sessions as short or as long as the iguana will tolerate. Your iguana will be attempting to train you at the same time. It will try to convince you to leave it alone, or only feed it certain items.
The “Stink Eye”. There is no mistaking the stink eye. The green iguana can really express itself without ever making a sound. The stink eye is when the iguanas’ eyelid is slanted down, and it truly looks like it’s giving you the evil eye. It’s more of a sign of irritation, or exasperation than a threat. Watch the eye pupils for clues to communication. Iguanas have excellent vision, but not very good depth perception. If they are judging a distance needed to jump, or bite and escape, their pupils will contract and dilate as the iguana focuses. This is not easily observed. Watch their eyes, but like with most animals, direct eye contact may be interpreted as a threat. In conclusion, here are a few things to remember about socializing your iguana. Patience. And lots of it. Consistency. Iguanas respond well to routine. Respecting your iguanas physical and psychological needs. Avoid approaching from the top. A gentle voice and a firm hand. Understanding your iguanas’ psychology. It’s at the bottom of the food chain, and it knows that. So just what is a happy iguana like? Is there such a thing? What other behavioral clues will your iguana display?
We have learned a lot since iguanas were first kept as pets back in the 1970’s. It was assumed that because they are lizards, they eat bugs. We now know that the green iguana is herbivorous its entire life. The same can be said about “taming” or socializing the pet iguana. Taming an iguana isn’t about teaching it tricks or to come on demand. It’s all about giving it the opportunity to trust you, its keeper.
For an iguana, trust is not something given easily, especially a hatchling. His instinct tells him to escape predators, or anything that even looks like it could be one. Here are some tips to help smooth the transition from wild and crazy to well, still wild, but not quite so crazy.
Start with the proper sized enclosure. Stay away from glass tanks, since these are open at the top. Approaching your iguana from the top to them is like being attacked by a predator.
Keep feeding and light cycles consistent. A regular routine will help him adjust to captivity.
Provide hiding places so she can retreat to safety.
Use the “hands off” approach. Minimal handling, if at all for the first month. Of course you will need to access the cage to clean it, just keep your movements slow.
Most iguanas are food motivated. When you are ready to start the next phase, hold the food dish with lots of yummies on it in front of him. Don’t try to force the food on him, just let him see that you are offering the food. He will probably ignore it at first. Give him a few seconds to think it over. Set the dish down and let him eat.
Some young iguanas are very shy and won’t eat in front of you. Place the food in a protected area where she can eat in private.
Each week increase the time you hold the plate of food in front of him. Eventually, you will see the wheels turn in his head as he decides whether it’s safe to eat from your hand.
Once your iguana is eating from the dish as you hold it, you can set it down and pick up some of the greens and offer it directly to her.
This process might take a few months, or it might take a few years. There is a very good chance you will get whipped. Just expect it to happen. For older, larger iguanas, take care to avoid putting your fingers too close to the mouth. Watch the body language that might indicate your iguana is getting stressed or feels threatened.
The next step is gaining its trust enough for you to touch it.
Curl your fingers into your palm like a fist. Move it towards the iguana, again, watching the body language. Stop if you can see he’s feeling threatened. Allow him to lick your hand. At this point, he might close his eyes. Most people interpret this to mean acceptance or pleasure. More likely, it’s a defense behavior. By keeping still, the iguana hopes to avoid a predator by blending into the surrounding area. This is a very crucial moment in the life of an iguana. While he appears to be quiet, he is very aware of his environment and internally judging the moment for when he will gather his strength and run for his life. At this time, if he has not run away, has opened his eyes and accepted your touch, you have gained a little more of his trust. Cherish it!