The gecko queen
Leapin’ lizards have captured this researcher’s heart
She was a girl who always loved animals, and was prone to rescuing wild animals that she found wandering near her home in suburban Michigan. But it wasn’t until college, when a friend managing a pet shop introduced her to geckos, that she found her one true love. Docile, easy to care for and generally sociable, the beguiling lizards that would sit bug-eyed in the palm of her hand had lots to recommend them. “I think they’re neat,” says Kati Wrubel, in true Midwestern form.
Ten years later, at age 30, she’s a postdoctoral associate with a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience who runs a gecko-selling business on the side. Her life is fractured in a good way. Wrubel divides her time between the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, where she assists Louis Shuster, professor emeritus of pharmacology, biochemistry and neuroscience, and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, where she works with Nicholas Dodman, director of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Program, and Alice Moon-Fanelli, a veterinary behaviorist. In her spare time, Wrubel maintains a colorful website (www.katiscresteds.com) to market her carefully bred and raised lizards to discriminating buyers everywhere. Every other month, she and her 11-year-old daughter, Eve, travel to pet shows around the northeastern United States to sell their animals in person.
Wrubel may sell four or five geckos a month online, using UPS insulated overnight shipping and a guarantee that the gecko will arrive in good health. Shows are more lucrative, with as many as 20 or 30 geckos a day selling at prices from $50 up to $450, depending on type and rarity.
People in the lizard business are mostly male. Wrubel describes typical vendors at lizard shows as a bunch of guys in camouflage hats standing with their arms crossed, primed to display their 12-foot-long snakes. Now picture this winsome brunette and her daughter plunked down at a table in the same huge hall, smiling at you. It’s a contrast worth savoring. Generally speaking, Wrubel is not much on attitude. “I pride myself on customer service and approachability,” she says. “I try to keep it fun.”
Asked to comment on misconceptions that Americans may have about geckos, she quickly laughs, in reference to Geico’s omnipresent ad campaign, and says: “That they talk and sell insurance.”
In fact, geckos make good pets. They don’t bark at night or scratch the furniture. Tropical, arboreal creatures, geckos can live for 15 or 20 years. Certain species are aggressive, capable of screaming and biting a person’s hand when alarmed, and then refusing to let go. But hers are the gentler sort, companionable and sweet-tempered, she maintains. And they are easy to keep. Although some species require extra heat and special ultraviolet lighting to stay healthy, Wrubel’s geckos tend to be low-maintenance. They do well at room temperature on a modest diet of Gerber’s baby food (they prefer peach, banana, mango, apricot) and crickets.
A visit to Wrubel’s website shows the geckos to be speckled and colorful, sporting huge eyes, oversized feet and a weird, almost prehistoric look. (If dinosaurs could fit in your hand, they would be something like this.) Many appear playful, and a few exhibit ear-to-ear grins, like frat boys ready to party. Now, obviously, geckos are not a wise choice for everyone. “They appeal to people who kind of want something different,” says Wrubel.
Her business specializes in two kinds of geckos, cresteds and gargoyles, with the former species dominating the array. Cresteds have a bit of saucy fringe on top, resembling a teenager’s Mohawk. These geckos were thought to be extinct until they were discovered in New Caledonia, an island east of Australia, in 1994. Wrubel has recently joined forces with Joerg Mayer, a staff veterinarian at Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals, to study crested husbandry in depth through blood work and analysis.
“We don’t really know if we’re caring for them properly in terms of what we feed them or how we treat them,” Wrubel says about crested geckos. “They’re a new species, after all. They’ve only been in this country for 13 years. Are we doing exactly what’s best for them? Using my colony, Joerg and his colleagues will look and see.”
Bruce Morgan is the editor of Tufts Medicine, the alumni magazine of the medical and Sackler schools, where this story first appeared before it ran in the October 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.