Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Carn-ig-val Iguanas

One person can make a difference

©1996 Janet Calp


The evening started out fine. A free pass to the New York State Fair and pleasant weather to enjoy the sights and smells. I went over to catch the "Sprocket Jockey BMX" Show but just opposite the show stood one of those "throw the ball in the fishtank, win a prize" booths, except, to my extreme dismay, it wasn't goldfish they were giving away.

On the corners of the booth stood wire cages, probably 2 ft x 1 ft x 2 ft high, housing hermit crabs, anoles and hatchling iguanas! The temperature was somewhere in the mid 70's. A light was hung squarely over the center of the iguana cage and the majority of the 20-30 hatchlings (maybe 3-4" svl) clung to the upper sides of the cage, trying to catch the peripheral warmth of the bulb. A few sat on the bottom. All were completely stressed out, motionless, eyes closed. There was a paper plate on the bottom of the cage which had once held who-knows-what and, to my further dismay, there was a dead iguana on the floor as well.

At that point, being the emotional wuss that I am when it comes to animals, I just turned and walked away, crying. I couldn't confront the people manning the booth. First, I knew that I would start crying and second, I just didn't think it would do any good. I went home that night, cried again when I told my friend, Bill, about it. I felt extremely guilty for not confronting the operators of the booth and tossed and turned all night.

The next day I left a voice mail message for the SPCA cruelty investigator. No-one returned my call.

Extremely frustrated, I went to AOL that night and tapped out a desperate cry for help to Melissa Kaplan, AOL iguana guru and all around nice person. I begged for suggestions, anything that might help.

The next morning an e-mail from Melissa showed up chock-full of names and the suggestion that I use the Salmonella angle. Bill contacted the County Health Department, who referred him to the State Health Department, who bucked it back to the local Health Department people on the State Fairgrounds, who said they would call back that afternoon.

I called the local paper and one of the local TV stations to see if they'd bite on the "potential" health problem in addition to the unsuitability of these poor creatures as prizes. I also called a member of our local herpetology association to see if he had any ideas. No leads anywhere. Even the Health Dept. didn't call us back.

I went home disappointed, feeling totally stonewalled. No return calls, nothing in the paper or on the local news, which was giving extensive coverage to the fair, including live remotes.

I received another note from Melissa suggesting I contact the Bureau of Epidemiology in Albany. OK, I'd try that the next day.

I did get a call from the Cruelty Investigator the next day. She said that State law prohibits live animals from being given away as prizes, but they were getting around that by making a nominal charge (yeah, sure!).

I dashed home for lunch so that I could try to reach Dr. Guthrie S. Birkhead, Director of Epidemiology at the Bureau of Epidemiology. After listening to five minutes of the "voice mail secretary" who told me how to contact everything from AIDS Awareness hotline to the Zinc Users' Support Group, I finally got hold of a live person. Then, after two more transfers, I finally reached his office to find that he was away on vacation. OK, so at least I had his office. I finally got lucky and reached someone who worked with Dr. Birkhead and he was very interested.

That was at 12 noon. At 3:30 PM I got a call from this gentleman saying that the wheels were in motion. The stand was not permitted to give away igs until warning signs were posted and the booth operators received literature to give out to every prospective owner. This was an extension of the latest mandate in New York state that all pet shops who sold iguanas had to post these Salmonella warnings and advise new owners.

Within ten minutes I received another call, this time from the local representative of the Health Department. He told me that he had already taken the posters out to the site, talked with the operators of the booth and generally laid the law down. He also said that he had heard, unofficially, that the fairgrounds were going to prohibit any iguanas being given away on the fairgrounds whatsoever (be still my beating heart).

I contacted the State Fair Director's Office who confirmed this. The game people would have to arrange for the "prizes" to be picked up at a local pet shop so that proper warnings could be given. YIPPEE. It wasn't completely what I wanted, but it was better than I hoped for. At least, when the new owners went to pick up their little prize, they would find out that the cost of properly housing and caring for him would be an investment, thus discouraging the "casual owner" from even getting involved.

That evening, I went back to the Fair with a friend and of course I made her cruise by the booth with me. Why, there were only the hermit crabs left (poor things). I couldn't resist asking about the iguanas. "No more iguanas" was the reply in a monotone. As I walked away I would have jumped up a clicked my heels if I were able to. I never, ever thought I would get this far. I went home that night and hugged my Iggy, telling him all about the happy ending. He gave me a supportive lick and then winked!

Now, if we could only do this wherever igs are prizes. I plan on forewarning the Health Department next year prior to the State Fair. If we can make these prizes undesirable, or just too tough to give away, perhaps we can end this barbaric practice. Let them give away stuffed toy iguanas!

Melissa writes: Janet sent me her article with a short note stating "It's a small battle that we won, but most wars consist of small battles and skirmishes, don't they?" They do. Janet found that even a wuss, armed with only a telephone, can effect change. It just takes each one of us, every time we see a dead or dying animal, or animals being given away under inappropriate circumstances, to speak up. If she can do it in her state, you can do it in your county or state, too, wherever reptiles and other animals are being given away as prizes, especially with the increased concern over Salmonella.

Find out more and get involved: Join the CarnivalIguana email list to discuss what can be done about iguanas, turtles and other animals being given away as prizes at carnivals and fairs.

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