The Dragon of Cape Coral

Friday, April 18, 2008

CAPE CORAL, Fla. -- The Nile monitor lizard is not a cuddly creature. It is related to the Komodo dragon, has razor- sharp teeth and fearsome claws, and can grow to be seven feet long. For years it was a popular item in pet stores, but in this city in southwestern Florida it has gone native.

Cape Coral is a sprawling city of 150,000 that has sprouted on dredged land near Fort Myers. The city, covering 110 square miles, is a gridwork of canals and new homes. At first glance it appears to be part retirement paradise, part real estate disaster: Countless homes have been foreclosed upon because of the mortgage crisis. And then there are the lizards.

The monitors showed up about five years ago. City officials suspect the first monitors were intentionally dumped, perhaps by someone hoping to start a breeding colony for subsequent recapture and sale. You can't easily see them, because they're shy, but they're there, in the weeds, or in their burrows, or, sometimes, in someone's pool or behind a hot-water heater. The monitors like the sandy soil along steep canal banks.

A handful of city workers, operating stoically out of an office in the middle of the sewage treatment plant, set traps for the lizards and try to round up any that are giving residents the willies. One concern is that they could threaten the burrowing owl, a federal "species of special concern" that also likes the sandy soil of Cape Coral. And they may soon spread across the state, to the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades. "We are on the cusp of a breakout," warned Todd Campbell, a University of Tampa biologist.

There have been two monitor sightings on Sanibel Island, near Cape Coral. Sanibel is home to roseate spoonbills, wood storks, herons, egrets and many other wading birds. Robert Loflin, the town biologist, doesn't like the idea of an efficient, egg-gobbling carnivore overrunning the wildlife sanctuaries treasured by his community.

"It eats basically anything," Loflin says.


"The concern would be over small children left unattended," he says.

To date, the Cape Coral monitors haven't harmed anyone, but they've been implicated in one cat fatality.

-- Joel Achenbach

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