One method I prefer above all others is the “hands off” approach I have used it with well over a hundred iguanas.
What does the hands off approach mean?
There is much misconception about what that means in the iguana community, many have scrutinized the method to take the meaning that the owner never interacts with their animals or never make contact with their animals and thus only keep specimens for the fun of it. This is completely inaccurate and untrue. The end result is an animal you can interact with and in fact your iguana will build a “bond of trust” with you, even to the point it will comes out to you by itself.
Even my biggest most dominant territorial male has his tender days where he will come out and sit on my knee but it must always be on his own terms rather than my own.
I know this method works because I have done it to well over a hundred specimens and have quite a healthy video and photo collection to prove it. This method isn’t applicable just for iguanas; in-fact most lizards I have kept have done very well with it.
What are the benefits of this?
I think it is important to understand that to varying degrees, ALL captive animals suffer some degree of stress in some way shape or form. It is not avoidable completely and the aim is not to remove this completely.
The reasons I dislike the encouraging of force handling in these animals are :
1. In nature when a lizard is being grabbed, captured or restricted in its movement capacity in any way, it is strongly associated with being attacked and thus dinner and so if I grab animals and get behaviors such as biting/whipping/death-rolling it is hardly surprising.
Iguanas do this because they are herbivores and this also means that they are on the menu for a lot of other animals including Homo Sapiens (humans and some monkeys). They have evolved to be suspicious of the world and is one of the key points of realization to their success in surviving. Our iguana has no reason to trust us yet unfortunately.
2. Some studies have shown that these markers of stress are elevated in reptiles when forcibly handled/restrained. It can lead to increases in adrenal catechlomines (ephinphrine and norephinephrine) and corticosterone, testosterone levels are lowered and decreased hepatic protein synthesis, decreased hepatic vitellogenin synthesis, hyperthermia tachycardia lowered food intake can all follow simultaneously. This means that your animal “mighty show signs of being tame” but the reality is this is so far from true. It’s almost like they have been handled so much to the point they have tried themselves out trying to fight back. This in my opinion isn’t trust, they have been bullied down into a submissive state and this shouldn’t be confused with actual trust building.
In my own experience a bold confident iguana will walk around with its head held high, he will have no problem coming to you himself and feeling he can exhibit a marvelous repertoire of communicative signals and displays while stancing (stands up and inhale air into the lungs to make itself look bigger). I want to be my iguanas’ friend and not their boss.
Our scaly friends are primitive in their behavior. We can not expect an animal which lacks a paleomammalian brain cortex to respond to stimuli the way a cat or dog would. Iguana behaviour and mood are much more primitive in the sense. It is rooted in their biological chemical and hormone levels and the daily and yearly natural light cycle rhythms.
3. Visually at least, in some instances, it also becomes quite evident by the clues such as the fanning of the dewlap under the chin, panting, puffing up, closing the eyes, opening the mouth that there is elevations in stress responses toward the owner at certain times of the year or if they feel threatened.
How is your iguana perceiving you?
It is important to understand things from your iguana’s perspective, he/she thinks you are out to grab him for dinner every time you go into the enclosure.
The owner is a threat in every instance; how our iguanas responds to this stimuli is either curiosity, attack or flight. That’s it in a summary. When I “tame”, I want to develop a relationship with my iguanas to the point those markers of stress previously discussed are as minimal as they can be. In reality, the truth is, we are having them tolerate us as much as we can. That’s what “taming” is in a nutshell; conditioning responses through good routine. Implanting a method where they eventually come to perceive us as a much less of a threat.
Is stress completely avoidable? I don’t think so, I also think even the most placid of specimens can have their moments.
Can it be managed. Yes I believe it can. For large big dominant aggressive males in breeding season please read this article for further ideas.
Is grabbing a way of managing that?
Grabbing methods are common and quite often advised, however as discussed there is a difference between building that bond of trust and just forcing ourselves on our animals.
In my opinion no. Not unless the animal needs to be directly grabbed or detained for it’s own safety, first aid or is put into the appropriate restraints in medical practice which will otherwise trance them out, minimizing markers of stress dependent upon the situation they are in.
As previously stated I don’t want to be the “boss” of my iguanas. They are not dogs, and should never be treated as such. Especially larger dominant in season males. They should be respected and treated with dignity all the same regardless. They are still a wild reptile and are capable of inflicting injury. Their behavior round all is often dictated to them by the parameters of their environment and time of the year and that’s before we get into things in the daily home which can impact fear, freezing, temper tantrum responses. There is most probably around 50 variables within the daily home which can cause behaviour responses and that is most probably an understatement too.
I want my iguanas to understand that their environment is their “safe place” where they can go to without me bothering them. A place where they can call home, where there life support systems such as UVB/heat/humidity are, and they do not need to fear being “attacked” at any direction at any given moment.
This is why I prefer to have a more naturalistic/enriched setting as I don’t have to constantly be over my animals, making them feel exposed and ready to be attacked from any angle at any given minute. I want my animals to feel comfortable and safe which is why I prefer the aid of bioactivity. This also means I do not have to keep going into their enclosure for little things and disturbing them when they do not want my interaction.
If they come to me (and most of mine have eventually with this method via getting them into routine during the conditioning process) then I am a little more selfish and I will interact with them. Even Albus will come to me when he has a good day (hence the photos of him sitting on my knee); I have never forced him. The hands off approach prioritizes their needs first and ours second. It allows us to build trust without mentally, physiologically or biologically breaking them down or bullying them into submission or causing unnecessary stress. Iguanas are not domesticated and do not understand or respond to things like a domestic cat or a dog does.
Why choose this method ?
I have used different methods of taming for different individuals and different situations. All have just been developed and adapted within the same principle of not forcing the animal to do something it doesn’t want to do. I have seen very different behaviors in specimens conditioned to trust me this way to one that has just been grabbed. The specimens I have seen seem a little bit too “lethargic” and some specimens simply have not displayed normal natural behavior patterns some just look mentally broken, dull in colour and clearly showing signs of constant stress.
Fused with the nutritional disorders these reptiles are susceptible too and the fact that the stress hormones and protein synthesis become decreased when grabbed, it makes me wonder in a more general sense how many so called “tame babies there are” that are in reality just sick or over handled and stressed or mentally suppressed. My animals show bold and confident behavior around me, they are not afraid of me, many in the end will just come out onto my arm themselves without me having to touch them. The only difference on the scale this begins to occur is dependent upon the individual, although most have with perseverance, routine and conditioning.
Now to the good part.
So you brought the iguana home now what?
You first of all want to make sure that your specimen is as healthy as it can be. A very important note here is : a “tame”, docile, lethargic specimen should always be the suspect of illness or disease, especially with babies. Babies do not tame. One reason I personally have not bothered trying until around a year and a half although within that period I will attempt to get them into a routine and coax them onto my hand for hand feeds but nothing more (it becomes beneficial much later on if this can be achieved, this is accomplished by placing your hand in the palm face up position and sitting calmly near the enclosure for a while) is because you want a healthy, bright, alert, iguana.
Before I begin considering taming/conditioning I also want to make sure that the environment is as good as it can be. That the animal is comfortable and eating well; this may take some weeks. I know it’s hard but consider this. I want to make sure that the habitat is suitable for the iguana. A decent 38-45 C (F) basking spot. A good quality UVB lamp and where necessary reflected and properly distanced. I personally use a conjunction of mercury vapour bulbs in conjunction with the Arcadia T5 tubes with my larger iguanas. The enclosure will normally have a plain bark, or a mix of bark soil/sand, leaf litter substrate with moss. It will also be decorated up with decent climbing furnishings and a few plants to hide in which will allow it to expose itself to different levels of light UV intensity and heat. An iguana being put into a fish tank, or any other type of bird/hamster cage or any other space that is not able to control their basic requirements is not advisable. For this method to work your animal’s health must be at it’s peak so this falls to the responsibility of the owner.
It s so important to make sure you are only trying to tame down “healthy” specimens that are housed correctly in appropriate sized vivariums with the appropriate cage furniture décor, being fed the “correct diet” and is otherwise heated and provided decent enough access of UV across a vertical gradient. Any lethargic behavior/dehydration/anorexia is a serious concern and a reptile veterinarian should be consulted as soon as possible.
Baby iguanas are naturally flighty. In my experience most babies tend not to condition so fast and so I don’t really bother touching mine unless I really have to. They are naturally skitzy and flighty and react defensively when caught.
However the most important thing in my opinion is that I can begin trying to get my iguana into a routine. The routine will simply be for maintenance, cleaning and keeping up with it at roughly the same times every day. On contrary of the generic belief, iguanas are animals of habit and with time they will begin to understand that you are going into their enclosure to clean/feed them. They are intelligent creatures. Though it can be tempting, it is best to not interact with them from the beginning as you can just end up taking ten steps back and giving them more reasons to be suspicious of you in future.
I then begin with slow processes, such as placing my hand slowly near their food bowl while they are eating, being mindful of not moving too fast as this can cause them to become skittish. If you do this accidentally don’t worry, just keep trying and persevering and learn from your mistakes, all isn’t lost. You may have to repeat this all over again, the more it occurs the better, this is a form of conditioning. They have a suspicious herbivore feeding strategy (eat look around, eat look around, and eat when they think other animals are distracted). Quite interesting when I hear that iguanas eat when there owners eat at night…. many believe it is the iguana socializing. My belief is your iguana just thinks you are not paying it attention like a wild animal would and so its got a safer bet of eating while you’re distracted.
With time I begin to incorporate the hand-flat and palm face up method inside of the enclosure. This method works on the principle that it is not seen as too much of a threat and if an animal does bite you due to the shapes of there mouths they will have difficulty succeeding. So it is better for their safety and your own. I incorporate small pieces of food such as a dandelion leaf or fruit to entice them over to my hand and again I will routine it. Some will take a while to come to you, others won’t. Patience is the key here. Keep up with it until you get success with it and if you can routine this for some time, then you’re ready for the next step.
Although not a baby in this video, an iguana I was working with briefly at a nearby rescue. He was skittish; this particular day I decided to start elevating my hand to start getting him used to the process. This is similar to what I would advise.
I can then begin moving the food to me, getting the iguana to come to me. Although I am still being mindful not to touch them still or make any sudden movements, I personally enjoy hand-feeding leaves to my iguanas and moving it up my arm with each success starting at the hand and each day moving up the wrist and arm and seeing them follow the food. If I keep this in a routine my iguana will begin to associate coming out onto my arm and once I have achieved this result then I take the time to take it to the next step.
Once the iguana is conditioned to my presence and has associated me with it’s routine then I will try to make brief gentle interactions. It’s interesting that my iguanas don’t close their eyes when I rub their heads. After incorporating this method like I have seen so many other iguanas do when they are out (which really) is supposedly them trying to ignore something bothering them until it passes. I have heard conjecturally that this is them showing affection. I personally believe this is people applying a humanised domestic abstract analogy with our own conditioned responses. However, I have yet to see a good conditioned iguana do this.
Although it is important to point out all iguanas will do this occasionally, I’m more thinking generalised interaction. I personally have doubts about this myself as studies on cardiac rhythm accelerating to fear responses have often shown similar results in this species when touched with the eyes closing. The usual time for eyes being closed is 20 seconds with no interaction I have found in my experience but it does seem to vary but if you touch them otherwise it can be longer. Mine keep their heads high, they are bright and alert and are not afraid to be what they are. Occasionally mine will allow me to touch them while they are in relaxed postures and close the eyes. This may be a fear response or a conditioned response depending on the individual and their past. If they do close their eyes however don’t worry, especially if there body language is relaxed but the head is still high, otherwise have a relaxed body posture which is a good indication they are content with the situation. Albus is normally super territorial in his vivarium so this was a good example of him being relaxed with me on this particular day.
I may also sit outside of their enclosures with their doors open at other times giving them the option to come out. It is up to them, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Iguanas are naturally curious and may come out to explore you/taste you. Sometimes even my big dominant male does this and lays right across my knee although I am mindful of some of the more dominant specimens and making observation of his body language. I especially don’t allow this with the bigger more dominant males while in breeding season. Their instincts over-ride them at this point but they will go back to normal after a few months in the majority of cases and I can pick right up where I left off.
This way, I am interacting with my animals, but it is all on their terms and the trust is built through association/routine and patience. This can take weeks/months or even years sometimes. Patience is a key with animals like this. If you want to interact with them in a way so as that they still flourish display and be iguanas inside their own environments.
With time, the iguanas will begin coming out to me themselves. There is no set time frame for when this result takes place but it is important to practice and repeat and keep in routine. When the animals begin coming out to you themselves this is when I consider it a good time to begin making interactions.
Here are some videos of my own iguanas that would come out to me, all specimens were flighty, skittish, bitey and wholly afraid of me to begin with.
Merly was a surrendered iguana who was well cared for by her owner however due to health she was unable to look after her. When she arrived however she was very aggressive. This girl was responsible for inflicting upon me one of the most painful bites I have received.
Other iguanas. With the final result and confidence to come to me.
Long post I know but I feel it is important to explain the sound logic and reasoning behind the described method. I hope this article helps and I wish you all the best of luck with your taming process.
Image credit : Frank Deschandol