What kind of lizard am I least likely to inadvertently kill?
December 31, 2010 9:22 AM   Subscribe

We'd like to get a pet lizard and preferably not kill it. That's my starting point, and I need help moving forward.

We kept my son's class pet, a leopard gecko, over the summer last year, and managed to both enjoy the experience and return the lizard to the first grade unharmed. But my experience with non-companion animals is limited.

I'm looking for advice on what type of lizard to buy, where to buy it, and what its optimal habitat would be. I know there are several lizard-centric sites on the web, but I'd like to hear about specific insights from lizard owners.
posted by bibliowench to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My recommendation: the Caledonian crested gecko. They're amusing to watch, they're relatively friendly, as far as lizards go (you can take them out and play with them), and they're hardy. As a bonus, they prefer a temperate climate (mid to high '70s), so they don't need heat lamps. You can sometimes find them in the "big box" pet stores like PetSmart and PetCo, although we got ours from a local breeder, and you can keep a male and up to two females in one 10-gallon terrarium with moss flooring (which you can also find at local pet stores), as long as you also give them some fake plants, climbing sticks, etc. They only caveat is that they can be jumpers, so you have to be careful when taking them out. This goes double, of course, if you have other pets in the house.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:28 AM on December 31, 2010

I've had my leopard gecko going on 8 years now. We bought it from a local pet store (non-chain), so I'd recommend that you seek that type of store out rather than a PetsMart. It is very low maintenance -- just keep a container of crickets handy. Make sure that you do have a pet supply store nearby, though 2-3 dozen crickets will last you about two weeks. The gecko sheds it's skin occasionally, and you may need to help it peel skin off of it's toes when that happens. Really, you just need to periodically clean waste from it's tank, and make sure that it's fed and given water regularly.

I have it in a 15 gallon fish tank with a mesh top. I'm using a heater on the bottom of the tank and a 60 watt heat lamp over the mesh top (I typically use the Reptile Basking Spot Lamp from ZooMed). The only things in the tank are sand on the bottom, a water bowl, sling, and "house" for the gecko to rest in.

On a related note, you WILL lose crickets in your house. It's inevitable.
posted by kensch at 9:55 AM on December 31, 2010

As cool as they are, I recommend against a Chameleon. I just killed the one I was petsitting for my sister by failing to keep the temperature and humidity properly within tolerance.

And, as I struggled desperately to keep the thing alive, I learned that they're recommended for advanced reptile-keepers only. Poor thing never had a chance.
posted by Netzapper at 9:57 AM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I recommend a bearded dragon. I had one as a kid and he lived for several years and was comparatively easy to care for. I don't know about other lizards, but bearded dragons hiberate for months in the winter which is both a good and a bad thing; good because that's several months when you don't have to pay for food or clean up poop, bad because you can't interact with them for that time period.

Bearded dragons are also cool because they're omnivores, so if you run out of crickets you can feed them vegetables as well. Mine loved to go outside and eat dandelions. They are also amazingly tolerant of being held and carried around. I'd walk around with Spike on my shoulder and he wouldn't protest. The only time I ever got bitten was when being careless with feeding him from my hand; he was never aggressive. Bearded dragons are very laid-back.

And yes, crickets will get loose in your house and you will find them in random places and hear them chirping at night.
posted by Lobster Garden at 10:05 AM on December 31, 2010

And as for habitat, you will of course need a heatlamp as well as a UV light. The UV light should span the entire enclosure, whereas the heatlamp should only be on one side of the enclosure, to give the lizard the option of moving to the cooler area if he gets too warm. When I had Spike, I set up his enclosure with a small tree branch for climbing (that also allowed him to get closer to the heatlamp if he felt cold), a large flat rock for basking, and a little fake cave for him to hiberate in similar to this.
posted by Lobster Garden at 10:15 AM on December 31, 2010

We had a Carolina anole who lived 8 years in a small tank atop our covered radiator. I wish I could tell you the key to our success, but really, all we did was feed it crickets regularly, not move around the habitat a ton, and put lots of green stuff in the tank for it to hide out in. I handled it only occasionally (though the internet says you really shouldn't handle them at all) and he was usually as green and as happy-seeming as a lizard totally lacking in facial expressions can be.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:29 AM on December 31, 2010

Bearded dragons can also become very friendly and responsive with repeated handling and exposure.

If ya don't want crickets or meal worms in yer fridge there's always green iguanas but they require very careful heat and humidity regulation plus lots of space as they grow ( our new cage is HUGE). But on the upside they are pure vegetarians.
posted by Max Power at 10:33 AM on December 31, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you so much for your answers so far. I'm leaning towards this guy from a reptile rescue organization, since I don't entirely trust pet stores. Does anyone have any experience adopting a reptile from a humane society or the like?
posted by bibliowench at 10:34 AM on December 31, 2010

I've had a leopard gecko for almost a decade now and I highly recommend them also. Easy to take care of, cool looking and fun to watch, pretty tame (I wouldn't say he likes it when I pick him up, but he doesn't mind). Mine is great and has won over a many a reptile-skeptical friend. Pretty much the only annoyance is having chirping crickets in my small apartment.

I bought my gecko from a local pet store that specialized in reptiles; their animals seemed much healthier than the ones I saw at chain pet stores.

Also, if you do get a lizard that eats crickets, do yourself a favor and get a cricket keeper. They feel cheaply made, but still work oh so much better than the tupperware container I used for years before I knew they existed.
posted by firefleet at 10:36 AM on December 31, 2010

Best answer: Does anyone have any experience adopting a reptile from a humane society or the like?

Percy is a VERY handsome boy. And a hundred bucks for the set-up is a solid deal. Ordinarily I'd be a bit cautious about adopting from a rescue, because many reptiles have such specific requirements and you don't want to start out with a sick one, but if it's a reptile-specific rescue, as that place seems to be, there's no worries! One thing I should point out is that Percy's tail is bent and will remain so, but that's nothing to really worry about (one thing about crested geckos is that their tails don't regenerate). If you do decide to go with Percy, let me know and I can give you a few specific recommendations for crested gecko care, though as I mentioned above, they're pretty hardy little beasts. The weird thing is that they were assumed to be extinct until a population of them was discovered in the forest in the 1990s, and since then they've become one of the most popular pet lizards in the world, because they're so easy to keep and breed in captivity.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:42 AM on December 31, 2010

Even though the common consensus is to shy away from a chain pet store for buying a lizard, I find that it's perfectly fine for getting your supply of crickets. Like firefleet mentioned, make sure you get a cricket keeper. YMMV on the type -- I just use a large container, and I've heard that the ones with tubes aren't as effective. One tip -- I have the PetsMart code for 3 dozen crickets written on the top of my container. I bring it there, they fill the container up, and the cashier just types in the code. Saves them from being jumbled into a plastic bag.
posted by kensch at 10:47 AM on December 31, 2010

I'm with Netzapper on this. Most geckos (crested included) are pretty temperamental compared to Bearded Dragons, Anoles, and the like.
I'm not saying Percy's a bad idea, I'm just saying the margin of error is much narrower.
If you're really set on a gecko then Leopard Geckos, Fat Tailed Geckos, and a few others are a bit more hardy.
When I ran a pet store we carried New Caledonians. If I wanted to go out of town, I tried to make sure we didn't have any in stock because even my experienced staff had trouble with them.
posted by piedmont at 11:09 AM on December 31, 2010

I do want to be very clear that lots of people can handle crested geckos for the first herp, but they're not for everyone.
If you have the space, I've yet to find a reptile more rewarding and more beginner friendly than a bearded dragon.
posted by piedmont at 11:11 AM on December 31, 2010

I'm surprised to hear that geckos are considered high maintenance. When I was a kid I had a Flying Gecko that escaped from its tank into the house and lived happily and furtively for years after, apparently subsisting on household bugs like its cousin the House Gecko. We had occasional sightings, but somehow nobody could ever catch it until one day it showed up dead on the living room floor, a casualty of our vicious Dachshund.

So there's one anecdotal point for gecko hardiness, but do keep your tank well secured. They're quick little buggers with sticky toes.
posted by contraption at 11:26 AM on December 31, 2010

The point Netzapper was making pertained to chameleons, not geckos. There are a number of different gecko varieties, of which the leopard and the crested are the most beginner-friendly and the least temperamental. I disagree with piedmont that crested geckos aren't a good option for a first reptile. Their advantages: no heat lamp required, don't grow beyond a 10-gallon enclosure, don't require specialized food (I give mine baby food mixed with "crested gecko vitamins" plus crickets once a week or so), and can be handled without too much worry. Their only disadvantage is that they jump and climb pretty quickly, so you have to watch them fairly closely when you're handling them, as opposed to fat-tailed geckos or leopards, which are a little mellower about just sitting their in your hand.

Piedmont, I'm a little curious about why you and your pet store staff had trouble with crested geckos. Mine's been a monstrously hardly little beast that's put up admirably well with very minimal care, just sitting in a 10-gallon tank with a moss floor that doesn't get changed quite often enough and eating baby food and vitamins that also doesn't get changed quite often enough.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:54 PM on December 31, 2010

Nthing a bearded dragon. We have a beardie now and she's (Trogdor) great. I can take her outside and she really loves to run around the house. She's been hibernating on and off all winter and has been scampering around in her tank all day. Trogdor has quite the personality, as far as lizards go, and loves to be handled or go for a swim/bath in the bathtub. I really know nothing about reptiles (she was purchased as a gift for my husband who is allergic to all furry animals), and she has been very easy to take care of for 7+ years.
posted by Hop123 at 1:23 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, we bought Trogdor at a reptile show from a breeder.
posted by Hop123 at 1:24 PM on December 31, 2010

Yup, get a beardie. I had one for a long time, let him roam the house freely, let him sunbathe in the summer, etc. He really, really loved it when the cicadas came. Fun to watch him chase down wasps and really interesting to watch him hunker when shadows crossed his daylight sensor on the top middle of his head. They'll also learn to recognize voices, and will genuinely appear happier when their handler/feeder is around.

One bit of warning for beardies: they eat like freight trains. When they're small, you use small crickets. You'll be buying a box of 500 every week. You have to feed the crickets too, even if it's just the leftover endive and escarole from feeding your beardie. You also can't put water in a cricket box, they'll drown. Just a wet sponge.

My baby beardie was eating 35ish crickets a day, moving up towards 50 after about 6 months. I was buying 1 box of 500 crickets one week and 2 boxes the next, alternating just to keep him in bugs. You also have to calcium dust your vegetables, and never ever any iceberg lettuce. Endive or escarole it is, at least once a week, as much as he wants to eat.

Full spectrum light, ideally only from a fluorescent, as incandescent full spectrum lights are (or at least were 8 years ago) a joke. Plus a heat rock, as he can't work his digestive system until his guts are something like 99 degrees. Get a rheostatically controlled rock, avoid tape---it's difficult to control the temperature of.

And lastly, once he's about 80% full grown, switch to pinkies. (Baby mice.) Soooooo much cheaper, and better for him. 2-3 pinkies a week and he's set, relative to 250-350 crickets.

You'll have to learn to trim his nails, etc---but they really are quite awesome. I actually went to class one day and forgot mine outside, and thought he was lost. He must have just taken cover. 2 days later he was chilling by my front door like he was waiting for me to come home.

Geckos are kinda lame, and tempermental, and easy to break. Chameleons will die if the relative humidity in their cage isn't right, and they only drink MOVING water. (Beardies get water from what they eat, plus a good rigorous once-every-week-or-two misting) Water dragons and iguanas are ok, but they're....kinda lame. Beardies will puff up and change their color somewhat to let you know how they're doing, and they do wicked dances too. Sydney would bob and I'd bob my finger, and I'm quite sure he was telling me something, the "conversations" would last for a long time. He'll squish super flat to go under doors, he'll stand up tall when he's being bossy. He'll climb your couch to get in the sun, etc.

Just a word of advice, go for a "normal" phase beardie. The oranges/peaches/red/white phases tend to be a little less hardy. Don't be tricked by their small size, they grow fairly quickly. Sydney was a solid 30+ inches when I gave him to a friend with a better house.

One last thing that is VERY IMPORTANT for beardies: Beardies don't chew well. A good portion of the bugs they eat are still alive when they are swallowed. For this reason, NEVER EVER feed a beardie mealworms. 1, they suck nutritionally, they're mostly indigestible chitin, and 2, if he doesn't crush their heads they can literally chew their way back through your beardie, killing him.

Feel free to bug me with questions if you go the beardie route. I'm a fan of the fabric sided terrariums over glass if you can keep them warm enough. Prettier, cheaper, easier to maintain, and less likely to get toxic.
posted by TomMelee at 7:31 AM on January 1, 2011

TomMelee, I fed my bearded dragon mealworms occasionally and it never hurt him. He lived for quite a long time, actually.
posted by Lobster Garden at 8:57 AM on January 2, 2011

Response by poster: I'm a bit late in responding because I was waiting on news about the crested gecko adoption. We didn't get Percy, but we did get a baby from a local reptile store (pic 1, pic 2). We decided on the crestie because we were better able to accomodate a higher tank than a wider one, and we have an easier time meeting the temperature requirements than we would with a desert species (although meeting the humidity requirements in Colorado is proving to be a challenge.)

We've had her for about a week and a half, during which she's stayed hidden most of the time and does not appear to be eating much, so I'm not sure how successful we're going to be as gecko owners, but we've got our fingers crossed that we'll get to see her grow up. Thanks for all your answers. I want to get a whole bunch of lizards now.
posted by bibliowench at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2011

They're nocturnal, so she's probably eating in the middle of the night. When I got mine as a baby, I don't think I saw him eat for the first month or two, but I knew he was eating because he kept growing and didn't die. Also, you probably won't know gender for another few months, at least, so don't be surprised if it doesn't turn out to be a "she" after all. We went from staring at Rusty's underside going, "I think that might be a hemipenal bulge; what do you think?" at first, whereas now that he's more or less grown it's more like, "Jesus, Rusty, quit branding that thing at me, it's obscene!" when he clings to the side of the glass and stares at us, lasciviously licking his eyeball.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:23 PM on January 31, 2011

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