The Lizard Lady
Taking pictures of her photogenic gecko troupe has turned into a lucrative career for animal trainer Teri Gagnon.
When animal trainer Teri Gagnon first moved to the Big Island years ago, she couldn’t help but wonder if the colorful Madagascar gold dust day geckos could be taught to perform tricks.
It wasn’t long before she had a posse of pet geckos jumping in unison, responding to their individual names, and posing for portraits doing everything from ironing clothes and working on a computer to sipping cocktails in a cantina.
“When I hold my hand up for them to stay, they stay,” she says. “It’s beyond me why they obey. I talk to them. They look me right in my eyes. You really feel like they are listening. They are as intelligent and as trainable as a dog.
“I’m sounding like a crazy cat lady, but one of my geckos lives behind the picture in the bedroom. I turn the light on early so he can get some bugs. I’ll say his name, and he’ll peek his head behind the picture to lick some banana.”
Armed with a high-quality camera and lens, Gagnon set out to photograph her geckos striking clever poses accompanied by miniature props, scenes and sets she creates herself.
The initial results were so entertaining she launched a line of Gecko Greetings cards and calendars. All these years later, no matter the holiday or event, Gagnon has created a gecko scene to match the occasion.
To date, she has produced 133 different images for cards and has amassed 24,000 stock photos. None of her photographs are photoshopped or computer-generated.
Gagnon once interned for famed Hollywood animal trainer Ralph Helfer at San Francisco Zoo. She never forgot his advice: “You can train anything with a little love, a little patience and a little food.”
“When the geckos started hanging around me, I started to train them,” she says. “Back then, I spent eight hours a day training geckos. I made it a goal because I wasn’t used to not working after I retired from law enforcement.
“The original colonists were performing artists. I could call their names and invite them to gather at the edge of the table, and they would jump simultaneously on command.”
Geckos live for about 10-12 years when taken care of, which is why Gagnon gets so attached to them.
“I often have a gecko sitting on my shoulder,” she says. “They are like a tiny dog.”
A retired cop from East Palo Alto in San Mateo County, California, Gagnon witnessed the dark underbelly of society for much of her career. Relocating to Kapoho Vacationland years ago, she found much-needed healing through geckos.
She then took her original gecko clan with her to Kona Paradise in South Kona, where she lived for a while before relocating to Kailua-Kona.
“I needed something to change my point of view, and geckos did that for me,” she says. “I had collected miniatures all my life that were perfect for photographing the geckos with. It was serendipity. Pretty soon, I began making things like tiny birthday cakes, irons and laptops that are gecko-sized. It made me laugh so hard. I sewed the tiniest Hawaiian shirt ever to put on a tiny ironing board. Pretty soon, the greeting card business took off. The geckos bought me a new car and trailer.”
Indeed, some of her geckos are more adept under the spotlight than others. She has a few stars in her troupe, while others are retired performers that still make their homes in various cubbies in Gagnon’s house.
Her gecko Ace lives in the air conditioner, while Mickey Mouth lives in the mouth of a metal wall hanging. Duane, who was rescued from a bucket at Lowe’s and has no tail, has thrived for six years and lives in the flowerpot on her lānai. The pot is adorned with depictions of the original eight gecko “colonists” of Kapoho, from which 40 descendants have spawned.
“My gecko Makai lives in the fruit bowl, which makes it difficult not to squash him when I put new fruit in,” she says. “He is the ‘pet sitter’ gecko in my newest greeting card.
“I have a newcomer whom I haven’t named yet.
I’m thinking of naming him Midweek. My oldest gecko, Speck, lived to be 15 and died of old age. I hand-fed him toward the end. My gecko Killer and I were entered into at pet lookalike contest, and we came in second. We won 50 pounds of dog food. I would have preferred bananas for the geckos, but I settled for the dog food. My go-to gecko is Binky. She is the most tame and gregarious. She hangs out with me on my shoulder.”
For Gagnon, geckos continue to bring her joy and healing.
“We all need something that mends hearts. Geckos are a reminder from the universe to seek delight in little things.”
Learn more about Gagnon’s geckos online at geckogreetings.com. Every third Sunday of the month, she sets up her vendor booth at the Kailua Village Stroll, attracting curious visitors who become thoroughly intrigued by her personal stories of gecko interactions.