Let's talk for a minute about geckos. Geckos are soft-skinned, insect-eating lizards with short, stout bodies, large eyes and sticky pads on their feet. They come in a variety of colors, from black to purple polka-dot to a translucent olive, can scale anything from screen doors to mirrors and range in size from 10 inches down to mere fractions of an inch.
A moment ago there was a paper clip-sized gecko—yellow and red with black stripes—in the book of stamps on my desk here in Key West, Fla. When I opened the book, the gecko, shocked, or perhaps dozing, because it's daylight and geckos are generally nocturnal, was splayed across 18¬¨¬®¬¨¢ replicas of a puma and a harbor seal. The lizard tilted its head and looked at me in the doglike way geckos have, then skittered off to another more cluttered part of my desk. The encounter reminded me that I have become exceedingly casual and approving in my relationship with geckos, an attitude being adopted by more and more Floridians. Indeed, geckos are something of a rage down here, and for one reason: They are hell on insects.
Release one of the larger varieties of gecko in your house—the ones imported from Asia cost between $10 and $15 at pet shops—and you have set free a voracious, cold-blooded roach assassin, a Charles Bronson of the creeping, crawling world.
Geckos aren't interested in humans. They will hide by day—the smaller ones in cracks and crevices, the larger ones generally under your refrigerator or sink—and hunt at night. You may never even see your pet, which is just as well, because the big ones are taciturn, ugly and will snap at you if provoked, but you may occasionally hear it—a deep call that resembles its name, and the muted crunching of its latest insect meal.
Progressive homeowners in the sub-tropics seeking an inexpensive chemical-free, efficient and long-lasting way of controlling household insects have turned to geckos with great expectations. Indeed, from a purely functional standpoint, it's hard to find fault with these little exterminators. Geckos can live for as long as 12 years, and will stay in your house, somewhere, as long as there is food. Dogs and cats are uninterested in them. Geckos require no water or pet food, no cage or bed. And being creatures of habit, geckos come more or less housebroken. That is, they tend to deposit their droppings in the same place day after day; if an owner places a small box at the site, the gecko will use it much as a cat uses a litter box.
And how they can eat. There must be a dozen of the smaller geckos, three inches and down, living in and around my house—wild geckos are to be found in many parts of Florida—and at night I have watched from the shadows as the three that live above my deck light devoured hordes of gnats, mosquitoes and moths. At the rate of two insects apiece per minute (an average pace, according to my observations) the trio can theoretically be eliminating almost three thousand bugs per night.
Indoor geckos, such as the one in my stamp book, eat silverfish, termites, flies and millipedes, and the big geckos, the imports, can chomp through two-inch roaches like bluefish through silversides. Of course one does not, strictly speaking, "own" a gecko; one merely cohabits with it. It is a reptile at large, but "once you get used to the idea, geckos can be very entertaining and in an odd way, reassuring," Tallahassee gecko owner Louise Beauchamp wrote recently in an issue of Spectrum, a Tallahassee periodical. "I live alone and used to worry sometimes about noises in the night, but nowadays I just figure that it's only the gecko."
Certainly a pet gecko makes more sense than a pet alligator. And a gecko is easier to maintain than a goldfish, more useful than a gerbil and quieter than most birds. But is it better than a hammer or poison spray? Is it as empathetic as a dog? As playful as a cat? Above all, is a gecko worth those late night moments when, staggering half blind to the bathroom, you spot the nearly forgotten housemate frozen in mid-pursuit, a bulgy-eyed gargoyle on the rim of your water glass?
I'd say it depends on whether you would rather have several hundred cockroaches or ten thousand mosquitoes. Like an increasing number of Floridians, I'll take the gecko.