By Carol Band
Buying presents for preteens is tough. For my son's 12th birthday, he said he wanted a dirt bike, a cell phone, an Xbox 360 or a gecko.
Hmmm … Let me think. The dirt bike was totally out of the question. An XBox 360 costs $400 and would be another screen for me to monitor. A cell phone has monthly charges and text messaging fees and I'm sure Lewis would lose it within a week. Then there's the gecko, which he says would be educational, and only costs $6.99. Frankly, it was a no-brainer.
We got Lewis the XBox. No seriously, we bought a gecko. But, now I am thinking that the XBox might have been a better choice. Turns out, there are hidden costs with a $7 pet.
We already owned a 10-gallon aquarium, which had formerly housed a hermit crab (see my October 2004 column, "The Living Dead"). So, I scrubbed it clean and we went to the pet superstore to pick out a gecko. Turns out, a baby leopard gecko needs more than just a clean tank.
According to the teenage reptile expert at the store, geckos are desert creatures and for their health and well-being, you must recreate the climate of sub-Saharan Africa in their habitat. That means that in addition to the gecko, the tank would also contain a heating pad to maintain an 85-degree temperature ($29.99), a ceramic basking lamp with realistic moon light simulator ($24.99) and a $16 light bulb that gets hot enough to make toast. The gecko also required a synthetic rock to climb ($12.99) and a piece of sterilized bark ($4.99) to rub against when it sheds its skin (had I known about the skin shedding, I might have gone with the cell phone). Lewis also insisted on two plastic plants ($5) for added feng shui.
"They eat crickets," he said.
"Ewwww," I thought.
"Cool," said Lewis.
Conveniently, the pet store sells crickets. It's kind of like buying pets for your pet. The store puts the crickets in plastic bags. But the gecko guy said that ours couldn't live in the bag for more than a few hours. They would suffocate or chew through and escape. My priority was that our crickets remained captive. So I purchased a Cricket Corral ($7.99), where they would be under maximum security but could still live, fall in love and possibly reproduce before being consumed by the gecko. I bought a container of cricket food ($3.99) and a little sponge ($1.25) so they could have a little drink with their last meals.
I also bought vitamin powder that the sales clerk said we should sprinkle on the crickets before they are introduced to the gecko.
"It's simple," he said. "Just put the crickets in a baggie, add a teaspoon of powder and toss gently."
"Just like Shake 'n' Bake," I thought.
According to the gecko guy, our little lizard would consume five to 10 crickets every day.
"Until it matures," he said. "Then you can also feed it pinkies."
I stared blankly.
"Newborn mice," he explained.
"Ewww," I thought.
"Cool," said Lewis.
"Let's stick with crickets for now," I said, as the sales clerk handed Lewis a bag of 50 skittling crickets that cost 22 cents each.
Then I did the math. Eight crickets times 22 cents. That's $1.76 every day. That's $12.32 a week, $640.64 a year! I didn't tell my son, but that is way more than an XBox 360.
"Ah … how long do these geckos usually live?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"With proper care, about 20 years," said the gecko guy with a sadistic little smile.
Turns out, Lewis was right. Owning a gecko is educational. I've already learned that a $6.99 gecko may sound like a good deal, but it's way more than I bargained for.