First Pets: Leopard Gecko
Behind glam-rock looks hides a shy guy with a gentle disposition who's just looking for someone to love.
If we could have gotten our son a dinosaur, we would have. Will loves dinosaurs more than soccer, more than ketchup, more than his sister's time-outs. A wild guess: You've met a dinosaur nut just like him. That very nut may be doing a lurid setup in your house right this moment, the iguanadons roaring at the diplodocuses, the velociraptors shrieking at the allosauruses. It's a Quiet Riot concert in there. (Can we do a playdate?) You too would get your nut a real dinosaur if it weren't for that pesky extinction 65 million years ago.
Instead we got our earnest 6-year-old a kind of lizard. There's some nice logic here, because the word dinosaur means "terrible lizard" (even though dinosaurs weren't lizards and most of them weren't terrible). You must admit there's a certain linkage. The scaly skin, the eerie whip tail, the primeval aura, the carnivorous bent.
Think: Dino lite. Think: Close enough.
Hello, Leopard Geckos
There are many types of lizard, but leopard geckos are it for 5-and-ups. (The overenthusiasm of littler ones clashes with the creature's stately style.) Leos have a gentle disposition, one reason why the Global Gecko Association calls them "in many ways the perfect reptile pet."
And those other reasons? Leos are fetchingly low maintenance, confining their dry waste to one corner of their tank for easy cleanup. Also, they carry no fur-and-feather allergens, which is vital to our Claritin-dosing family. Beyond that, watching one stalk and snap up crickets is mesmerizing, a junior version of a T. rex making short work of a baby psittacosaurus. Plus, they're the glam rockers of pethood, with their velvety, suave, black-and-white leopard-pattern skin.
Leos commonly live up to 20 years, which I realize may be, um, a plus or minus. But that gives you lots of time to enjoy his personality. Ours winks, licks fingers, eagerly sidles out of his den to say hey at dinnertime, and engages in long, Spock-mind-meld staring contests. He's really almost charming.
Lifestyles of the Small & Scaly
Leopard geckos are large enough for kids to hold comfortably (babies start at 3 inches, adults reach 8 to 10). They stress easily, though, so make sure your child moves slowly (and you should always be there to supervise). Approach from the front, so he won't think you're a looming predator and he's the blue-plate special. Put your hand, palm up, in front of him. Let him "taste" your fingers and walk onto your hand; you can nudge his midregion very gently with the other hand to give him the hint.
Like all reptiles — turtles, frogs, salamanders, the whole swamp posse — geckos can carry salmonella bacteria on their skin. If your kids keep their hands out of their mouths while handling the little darlings and wash their hands afterwards, that should ward off this very slight but very real risk.
Leopard geckos do have teeth, but they seldom bear down unless truly provoked. Never grab his head or tail — especially the latter. When threatened, geckos startle their enemies by ejecting their tails, which continue to twitch on the ground. Talk about a party trick! The tail will grow back, but still.
Calcium-dusted crickets and mealworms, available at pet stores, are the mashed potatoes and meat loaf of the leopard gecko (FYI: kids are better at maneuvering decidedly unjumpy mealworms). Leos also eat their own skin (they shed every two to four weeks). I find this to be an 11 on the gross-out meter, but Will is enthralled.
The Lizard Layout
- Male leos cost about $40, females (used for breeding) up to $100. Leopard geckos don't need companions — in fact, a leo's life is far more peaceful when he doesn't have to compete for food, space, the remote control. (If you can't bear to go solo, choose two females. Males are territorial and should never be dorm-mates.)
- A 15- to 20-gallon aquarium with a screen top ($30 to $40) is fine for the single gecko. Because leos are so fastidious in their toilet habits, cleaning the cage is a cinch: Just lay paper towel in the chosen corner and replace as needed.
- Like all reptiles, leopard geckos are cold-blooded, and thus need a source of heat to keep them toasty: a heat lamp ($20), plus a light for watching this nocturnal animal strut his stuff. For fire safety, buy one with a ceramic, not plastic, base. Skip the hot rocks, however; they can burn your leo. You'll need a water bowl ($5), plus at least two reptile dens, one for the warm side of the tank, one for the cool ($10 each).
- Leopard geckos can't climb straight up vertical surfaces like Spider-Man because they lack the toe pads of other varieties.
- Many geckos lack eyelids. The leopard gecko has them, and they actually move. This may account for their cute factor.
- The plumper a gecko's tail, the healthier he is: The tail is where he stores excess fat for lean times.