Saturday marks Blacktip Island’s 433nd Running of the Iguanas, recreating St. Dervil’s original herding of rock iguanas to his Caribbean island monastery and converting them to Christianity in 1544.
“Dervil shared a one-room shack with dozens of those suckers,” island historian Smithson Altschul said. “Called them ‘monks.’ Taught them Gregorian chants. Records say they sang like the dickens.”
“To get the iguanas inside, Dervil’d run in front of the them with handfuls of fruit,” Altschul said. “Got people into church that way, too.
“After he died, islanders kept up the run, with folks racing in front of the iguanas, trying to make it to the kraal without getting mauled.”
The modern-day Running serves a more practical purpose.
“The runners are all residents convicted of minor crimes,” said Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette. “It’s the only way we can get through to some of these people. If they finish the run, their debt to society’s paid.
“We smear all the shoplifters, deadbeats and drink-drivers with fresh fruit, then turn the lizards loose,” I.P.C. Marquette said. “Bystanders are encouraged to throw fruit and vegetables as they pass.”
Runners are dressed in traditional white shirt and trousers, with a red waistband and neckerchief for easy identification.
“We set up barricades to keep the runners on course,” event organizer Jay Valve said, “but with just the one road, it’s more to keep the iguanas from running off into the bushes. The crowd sings a quick benediction, we shoot a skyrocket, and off they go.
“We had a couple of nasty clawings last year,” Valve said. “You have to expect that, though. You trip and fall, you’re gonna pay the price. But these are adjudicated criminals we’re dealing with here.”
“The Running also lets transgressors atone for their sins,” said the former-Reverend Jerrod Ephesians, head of the island’s Interfaith Committee. “Last year’s Running was cathartic. The slashing I got was way more rehabilitative than any week in jail.
“We’ve also revived the traditional baptism of the iguanas afterward,” Ephesian said. “We try to get the iguanas to sing along with the benediction, too, but so far’ve only gotten a couple to hum.”
Island animal rights activists decry the Running.
“It’s barbaric penning wild animals, then forcing them to harm people,” said island PETA representative Harry Pickett. “This isn’t natural behavior. And iguanas are being baptized willy-nilly, regardless of any stated religious affiliation.”
Event organizers downplayed those concerns.
“No iguanas are harmed in the Running,” Jay Valve said. “It’s not like we’re staging iguana fights later. The iguanas get fed. Then saved.
“Do people get hurt? Sure. But they have it coming.”