Man who killed iguana in Florida claims ‘stand your ground’ defense

The iguana started it. Or so says a man who claims he feared for his life and had every right to bash the creature to death under Florida’s stand your ground law.

PJ Nilaja Patterson, 43, is accused of animal cruelty over killing an iguana. But the 6-foot-3, 165-pound man argues that he was in fear for his life — and that the 3-foot green iguana was the first to resort to violence during their horrific encounter in Lake Worth Beach.

“The vicious animal got the best of Patterson and savagely bit his right arm,” say Patterson’s lawyers. The man went to the hospital and got 22 staples to close the wound caused by the “wild beast.”

Patterson’s tussle with the invasive reptile is thought to be the first time anyone has pursued a stand-your-ground claim over a deadly confrontation with an iguana. The controversial law instead was written with people and dangerous situations in mind.

A ‘savage’ encounter

Authorities accuse Patterson of being the aggressor on Sept. 2, saying that he “savagely beat, tormented, tortured, and killed” the iguana in a half-hour attack caught on surveillance video.

Prosecutor Alexandra Dorman pointed to the video as proof that “at no time was the iguana posing any real threat” to Patterson. She argued he “was not justified in his actions when he kicked this defenseless animal at least 17 times causing its death.”

Patterson “clearly tormented the iguana” and when the iguana tried to defend itself, it sent Patterson “into a violent rage,” Animal Care and Control Sgt. Adam Moulton wrote in an arrest report. He added that Patterson “chose to stalk the helpless iguana and deliver vicious strikes to the animal.”

When it comes to killing an iguana, Florida law allows it if the killing is done humanely. You can hit iguanas over the head with a shovel, stab them in the brain, and even decapitate them as long as they die instantly and don’t suffer.

In Patterson’s case, the iguana did suffer, officials say. The iguana had a lacerated liver, broken pelvis and internal bleeding, which were “painful and terrifying” injuries, according to staff veterinarian Dr. Virginia Sayre, who conducted the necropsy.

Arguing self-defense

But Patterson says he was the victim. He “maintains his innocence,” Assistant Public Defender Frank Vasconcelos said.

The iguana was the initial aggressor when it “leaned forward with its mouth wide open and showing its sharp teeth, in a threatening manner,” he said. Bleeding after being bitten, Patterson “kicked the iguana as far as he could,” Vasconcelos said.

“Patterson believed that the iguana could have injected poison in him and thus he rushed to incapacitate the iguana the best way he could in order to preserve its antidote.”

“Any force used by Patterson in order to further avoid great bodily harm or even death, was reasonably justified,” Vasconcelos wrote.

In the end, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen ruled Patterson isn’t entitled to stand-your-ground immunity. As a result, Patterson continues to face the animal cruelty charge, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Marc Freeman can be reached at and on Twitter @marcjfreeman.