Fresh Start Rescue and Iguanas
Helping Iguanas in Need fromFar and Wide
Fresh Start provides care for challenging species
Nicole Spencer is President of Fresh Start Rescue,a nonprofit group of volunteers passionate about saving the lives of homeless, unwanted, or injured reptiles in North Carolina. Fresh Start is one of the rescues supported by the Zen Habitats Reptile Relief program.
Zen Habitats: Why do many rescues not take Iguanas?
Nicole: Iguanas are tricky animals to take in at a rescue. They require a lot of daily care, a tremendous amount of space, and they can have attitude. Most reptile rescues are run out of people's homes, and space is a big issue. You can't just buy an Iguana cage in a pet store; most of them need to be hand-built because they need to be huge. Fresh Start Rescue has an entire outdoor building specifically devoted to Iguanas. Each of them has a large walk-in cage with a window to an even bigger walk-in enclosure outside. They have about 24 sq. ft. of floor space in each area and climbing space up to the ceiling. Even with all this, it’s not ideal, but they are comfortable. Many males get surrendered because they tend to be the most aggressive, and because two males cannot be housed together, the building gets full fast. Adult male Iguanas are not at the top of most people’s wish list for a pet, so they end up staying here for the rest of their long life. We still have Iguanas that were surrendered in 2013.
Zen Habitats: Why are many people who come to Fresh Start far from your location in North Carolina?
Nicole: Fresh Start has people from all over the country that come to adopt or surrender animals. We’ve had adopters drive from Texas because we don’t ship, and others fly up from Florida and drive back home. We've also had a family come with their Iguana to North Carolina from New Jersey. While there are rescues around the country, not all of them are doing it correctly. Some people have great intentions but running a reptile rescue takes a lot of space and money. We have been blessed by a great following that has helped up grow. And while I'll never personally believe our space is ideal, I do know the animals are well-cared for and comfortable. When we approve an adoption, we know that person is 100% ready for that animal.
Zen Habitats: What makes Iguanas different from other lizards you rescue?
Nicole: Much of this answer goes back to why other rescues don’t take them. Iguanas are super high-maintenance animals. They require a fresh vegetable and fruit meal every day. They need supplements and a lot of lighting. They need tropical humidity and heat with lots of places to climb. When I teach kids about Iguanas, I tell them they are like moving another person into the house. At 6 ft. long and 25 lbs., with a lifespan of 25 years and the space requirements of a bedroom. Add to that is the humidity level they need can rot drywall. Unfortunately, they also can be a very moody roommate! Males can get territorial and aggressive during the breeding season. There are certainly other animals who can show aggression during certain times of the year, but Iguanas can be one of the most dangerous.
Zen Habitats: What are other considerations people need to understand before making an Iguana a pet?
Nicole: I don’t want to make them sound horrible because some can be amazing pets, but others can be a handful too. If you work with your Iguana and build trust, most likely, they will learn to enjoy the interaction with you, or at the very least, tolerate it. However, you really need to be prepared to own an animal that may never let you near it. They are a look but don't touch pet. Most owners want cuddly, and while I have had 'cuddly' in an Iguana, I’ve also had those who never wanted to be touched. If you own an Iguana, especially a male, it’s not a question of if you’ll get bit, it’s a question of when, and you need to be okay with that and realize it was your fault and be more careful the next time.
Zen Habitats: What are the most common injuries and illnesses found in Iguanas?
Nicole: Metabolic Bone Disease is a condition that manifests in many different types of deformities or even illnesses. It is very common in Iguanas because lighting for them is so important. While I personally believe UVB is vital to most reptiles, some can live without it, and there are some, such as Iguanas, that absolutely cannot live without UVB. Humidity is also a big issue. It is very, very hard to keep the proper humidity levels in captivity for an Iguana. Summer is wonderful for them where we are located, but we're in a subtropical climate, so we don't maintain that humidity all year. It gets very dry in the colder months, and heaters or heat lights make it even drier. Lack of proper humidity causes chronic dehydration, which eventually causes renal failure and premature death. Renal failure is the reason most captive Iguanas die.
Zen Habitats: What makes your rescue different from others?
Nicole: I think we’re different because we really do give everything to this rescue. Not to say others don’t, but our volunteers have given up days off, vacations, and money over the years out of our pocket. We moved to a larger building on the property where most animals are housed now (except the Iguanas, who still have their indoor/outdoor building). When we moved all the animals out of the house, I realized I didn’t have much furniture! It was all shelving and enclosures. We run this rescue like a business, we take it very seriously, and it’s an all-day, every day, seven days a week part of our lives.
Zen Habitats: Do you have an exotics vet and/or technician affiliated with the rescue?
Nicole: We have a veterinary technician on our board of directors that moved to New Hampshire, and she opened Fresh Start Rescue – New Hampshire there. We also have an exotic reptile veterinarian for the rescue, but he is not a direct part of the rescue. He's a great doctor who goes out of his way for our animals, and we could not do this without him.
Zen Habitats: Do you have advice for someone that finds an injured Iguana?
Nicole: Well, I guess that depends on where you find the Iguana. Any injured animal should be taken to a vet or wildlife rehabber; however, an Iguana would not qualify as wildlife in most places. If an Iguana was found near us, it could be brought to us, and we would care for it or take it to our vet. I would say capture it if you can but take caution because if it's hurt, it could be aggressive. In most areas of the US, getting it out of the wild is extremely important. Call animal control for help capturing it. You can call vets or pet stores to find out if a rescue or rehabber is close to you.
Zen Habitats: Do you have other species of reptiles at Fresh Start?
Nicole: We have every species of reptile! Fresh Start Rescue has cared for over 70 different species of reptiles since becoming Fresh Start in 2017. This doesn’t include the animals we fostered since 2010 before we formed Fresh Start.
Zen Habitats: Are there animals you receive that are released or rehomed?
Nicole: The only animals we can release are injured wildlife. We sometimes get a turtle hit by a car or snake caught in deer netting. These animals are released once they are well enough to go back into the wild. Most of the animals we get here are exotic pets that can never go back into the wild, either here or in their native areas. However, we try to rehome most of the animals that come through our doors. Currently, we keep Sulcata Tortoises in sanctuary here, meaning we do not adopt them out. Occasionally, we get in a new species that we will use for education programs that live here for several years or even for the rest of its life. But most animals we hold in quarantine for 30 days to make sure they are healthy, and then they go up for adoption to try finding them their forever homes.
Zen Habitats: Do you have any advice and special considerations for owners taking on a rescued reptile versus those purchased through a breeder?
Nicole:When you buy through a reputable breeder, you’re getting a baby animal that may have a health guarantee. When you rescue an animal from a place like ours, you’re likely getting an adult animal with little known history. We can assess the animal for parasites, shedding issues, behavior, or other problems that are easy to see. Still, we can't guarantee that the animal will live out its entire lifespan or develop Metabolic Bone Disease. We don't know how the animal was cared for as a baby or if it had proper humidity levels, or if the owner changed the UVB often enough. But these animals desperately want to find loving homes where they can be spoiled and cared for properly.
In August 2021, Fresh Start moved to a brand new and more spacious space. Here are a few photos!