“It Ain’t Easy Being Green” Examines Island Iguana and Human Interaction


St. John resident Liz Lowe interacts with an island iguana at her home in Hart Bay during the filming of “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” left. News Photo by Bill Stelzer

A Green Iguana – Photo Ziggy Livnat

Island Wide — After two years, more than six trips to St. John and a new law that threw a wrench in the story line, Dr. Crystal Fortwangler and team are close to wrapping the film, “It Ain’t Easy Being Green.”

Fortwangler, an Assistant Professor of Sustainabilty and Environmental Anthropology at Chatham University’s Falk School of Sustainabilty in Pittsburgh, is a long-time visitor to St. John who has previously studied the island’s donkey and cattle history.

She is also co-owner, along with filmmaker Ziggy Livant, of Wider Angle Productions, which promotes sustainability and ethical animal-human relationships through films that entertain and educate.

For this project, Fortwangler is training her insightful eye on the growing iguana population on St. John and the vast difference of opinions on the animals.

“I’ve always been interested in animals here and I had been talking about doing something like this for a while,” said Fortwangler. “The iguanas provide an interesting human-animal dynamic from both an academic and film perspective. This is especially the case because there is such a wide spectrum of feelings about them.”

As the “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” trailer shows, opinions on the reptiles range from deep respect to downright abhorrence. Some residents are shown advocating to eliminate iguanas from the island while others actively encourage them into their yards and proclaim love for the lizards.

Iguanas are not new comers to these shores. The reptiles have been in the Virgin Islands since at least 1872, and likely even earlier.

“There is no doubt that green iguanas have been here since 1863; there is scientific evidence of that,” said Fortwangler. “There is also a description from a missionary in the late 1700s that describes what is likely green iguanas in the islands.”

“A leading theory is that the green iguanas originally came to these islands with early peoples but there isn’t specific evidence saying one way or another,” said the filmmaker. “Ideally we could get DNA samples from the iguanas here to help us better understand their history here.”

With only a small population, iguanas didn’t pose any problems until fairly recently. Today they are considered a pest by local farmers who have trouble keeping iguanas off their crops, especially their young plants, Fortwangler explained.

“It’s particularly difficult to protect your plants from them, it is hard for farmers and anyone with some plants in the yard, especially flowering ones,” she said.

Along with numerous factors, the spread of development and  not well planned relocation efforts have helped the iguana population to explode. Yet still, the lizards are seen more around human development and farms than they are in nature.

“While there are some environmental concerns to consider, the bigger issue is that iguanas and people are often in the same areas, and they both like the plants, the pools, the flowers — some people love the iguanas around, and others don’t,” said Fortwangler.

Until 2013, the animals had enjoyed protection under a law passed in 1922 which made it illegal to kill them; but that’s not to say many weren’t killed, Fortwangler explained.

“Before the change in the law in 2013 you couldn’t legally kill them, but people were,” she said.
Under pressure from the Department of Agriculture, which was hearing from farmers losing crops to iguanas, the V.I. Senate repealed the law protecting iguanas in 2013. Today it is legal to kill up to 10 iguanas per person per day.

When Fortwangler and Livant began “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” back in 2012, it was still illegal to kill iguanas. With the film nearing completion, the filmmakers are on St. John this week incorporating the law change into the film.

The new law adds another dimension to this thought-prokoving film which looks at options other than elimination to deal with the iguanas population.

“Part of the film’s intent is to raise the question, ‘What are the options besides killing the iguanas,’” said Fortwangler. “Some people and businesses have found ways to have iguanas around without issue. It can be difficult in some cases.”

“But we still raise the question ‘Do iguanas belong here,’ and if they do, and we think so, what kind of consideration should we be giving them,” she said.

Fortwangler is not suggesting that farming is not an important, she added.

“There is no denying local agriculture is important,” said the filmmaker. “But we’re also interested in thinking compassionately about the iguanas. What are other possibilities besides culling them?”

Although seen by some as pests, until two years ago, iguanas were encouraged at local resorts where feeding them was billed as a guest activity.

“We believe it is fair to ask, if we have relocated these animals for our enjoyment or other purposes, or we feed them as entertainment for tourists, and they then become pests, is it okay for us to kill them,” said Fortwangler. “We especially want to explore how can we avoid these types of situations in the first place.”

The solution-oriented film will hopefully launch a conversation about human-iguana relationship and could even lead to policy changes, according to the filmmaker.

Fortwangler, working with Livant and director of photography Bill Stelzer, is in the final stages of the project. The group expects to wrap up filming this week and has hired Aqua Sounds Studios on St. Croix to create original music for the film.

Next, the film will move into post-production and Fortwangler hopes to have “It Ain’t Easy Being Green” completed by October.

The team is at this point thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign which raised more than $10,000, an effort largely orchestrated by the film’s executive producer Jessica Bellas, a long-time island visitor, according to Fortwangler.

The fundraising was supported by St. John businesses Morgan Barlas Professional Computer & Network Services, St. John Inn, Gallows Point Resort and Queen of Tarts Bakery.

With additional financial support, the filmmakers would be able to meet their post-production goals even sooner. Anyone interested in contributing to “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” should email Fortwangler at crystal@widerangleproductions.com.