Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by David Liitschwager
In 2005 someone stole the Pacific Beach Hotel’s gecko. The six-foot sculpture, nicknamed “Uncle Sam” because it’d been painted like an American flag, had become something of a mascot; the staff would hang a fresh lei around its neck every morning, and they’d occasionally grace it with a lauhala hat. Uncle Sam was one of fifty-five fiberglass gecko sculptures created for the wildly successful community art fundraising project “Geckoes in Paradise.” Every gecko sold, and for a time giant, gaudily painted lizards materialized around Honolulu. When Uncle Sam went missing it didn’t take eagle-eyed Honolulu police long to bust the thief, because he’d bolted it to the roof of his car. Uncle Sam was recovered and restored to his perch outside the hotel, where he remains today.
Which goes to prove the obvious: Thieves often aren’t very bright, and Hawai‘i loves geckoes. Why not? They’re companionable reptiles, entertaining us around porch lights and keeping a lid on pestiferous tropical house-dwellers, including each other. But we politely ignore the cannibal predator in them because they’re, well, adorable, and the rice-size droppings they leave on our windowsills seem a small price to pay for their extermination services. Of course there will always be that squeamish fringe—like Kaua‘i resident Marilyn Wong, who was so spooked by a gecko she discovered upstairs in her Princeville home that she sealed off the second floor and never ventured there again. When Hurricane ‘Iniki tore the second story away, she was relieved that the offending gecko went with it (true story).
But for most of us, geckoes are woven happily into the fabric of Island life. They adorn mailboxes and T-shirts. They’re the protagonists of children’s books, in which they surf and dispense shakas. There’s one on the logo of the Kona Brewing Co., and just try selling car insurance using a Komodo dragon as your spokeslizard. “They’re really cute and popular,” says Rochelle Lum, the artist who designed the Geckoes in Paradise sculptures, “and whether you’re new or you’re from here, everybody knows about them.”
What, though, do we really know? Surprisingly little. Few of us might be aware that geckoes aren’t native to the Islands (no terrestrial reptiles are) or that half of the species here now arrived very recently, within the last sixty years. Even scientists don’t know much about Hawai‘i’s gecko populations; why spend scarce research dollars on a benign lizard,the thinking goes, when other alien reptiles pose real threats? For herpetologists Hawai‘i, with its dearth of reptiles, just isn’t much of an attraction anyway. “It’d be like going to Alaska to study coral,” jokes Fred Kraus, a zoologist and alien species specialist for Bishop Museum. “Why bother?”