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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Gecko goose chase: Police can’t confirm if Facebook sleuths found missing $1,800 gecko

Gator City Reptiles owner and police are not hopeful for the return of a valuable Leachianus gecko

Photo of the missing Leachianus “Leachie” gecko. [Photo courtesy of Mike Southwick]
Photo of the missing Leachianus “Leachie” gecko. [Photo courtesy of Mike Southwick]

Two large tanks sat tucked in the rows of creatures at Gator City Reptiles. In one, a large male gecko perched fearlessly on a piece of driftwood. The other sat empty.

Chantz Chick, the owner of the shop, had recently purchased two $1,800 geckos — one male and one female Leachianus “Leachie.” They lived comfortably in the store for about two months, hiding in greenery and eating fruits, before the female went missing one day. 

He’s not sure how, but Chick believes the lost Leachie gecko may have been stolen from her home on Jan. 28. 

Desperate to find her, Chick filed a missing gecko report with Gainesville Police Department. Detectives started on some leads, but more than a month later the Leachie is still missing from the shop and officers have no reason to pursue the missing gecko. 

Police can’t confirm she’s been stolen because the security camera above her tank didn’t record the crime. 

But that hasn’t stopped a Facebook group of reptile fanatics from scouring the Internet for the missing gecko, and they believe they found her. 

***

Mike Southwick, general manager at Gator City Reptiles, was working in the back of the shop on the day the gecko went missing. Another employee unlocked the tanks for maintenance. In minutes, the gecko disappeared from her tank. 

When the employees went to the cage to serve her dinner and mist her habitat with water, they realized the gecko was nowhere to be found. 

While Leachie geckos tend to be easy to handle, their attitude can grow along with their size, and they can become territorial of their space. They are big geckos with even bigger bites, Chick, the shop owner, said.

The Leachie gecko is one of the largest in the world, growing up to 18 inches, and originates from New Caledonia, a cluster of French islands in the southwest Pacific. The missing Leachie gecko, however, is on the smaller side at about 6 inches — just small enough to slip out of her home without notice. 

More than a year old, she’s a GTx Leachie gecko with fair, wrinkly skin covered in faint light brown and yellow spots. GTx, the locale that tells which island the geckos originate from, can be seen in their distinct patterns and colors. 

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The Leachie is sensitive, with specific temperature and humidity requirements, and she could become sick if the temperature is too hot or cold. These geckos also have a specialized diet — they can eat invertebrates such as crickets and roaches, but also need a fruit-based diet with protein. 

This isn’t an isolated incident, rare animals have gone missing from Florida pet shops before. 

In Kissimmee, a pet store had $60,000 worth of animals stolen in November. The thief took exotic monkeys and birds. Some of the pet thieves went to extreme lengths to steal the expensive creatures. In Davie, a burglar cut a hole into the roof of a pet store to steal 157 birds, valued at $75,500.

Much like Chick, these store owners feared for the missing animal’s safety. While exactly how Chick’s gecko went missing is still a mystery, these owners all had creatures they prized, and waited years to acquire, taken from them.

Christopher Hartman, 29, worked at the reptile shop about six years ago when it was under a different owner. In his time working there, he saw people try to steal less valuable reptiles, and he said many seemed to not know how to care for them. One was a Veiled chameleon who died after the woman who stole it mishandled it. 

“It looked like the way she had pulled it out of the cage had damaged its spine, and after a few days it ended up dying,” Hartman said. 

Despite his worries, Chick wanted to give any potential thief an opportunity to return the lizard before he filed a police report. He posted a message of concern and pictures of the Leachie on Facebook the day she went missing and wrote that if she were returned the next day, he would not press charges when or if police found her. 

“We would like to see the animal returned, as it does require special care, and we are greatly concerned for the animals well-being,” the post read. “If you bring it back tomorrow, no questions will be asked, and we will not press charges.”

After waiting in vain for a potential thief to return the lizard, Chick turned to the security footage. However, in another stroke of bad luck, the store’s security cameras failed to capture the crime. The camera above the tank was motion capture and picked up scattered clips that didn’t include a thief. 

Detectives worked on some leads, Gainesville Police Department spokesperson Graham Glover said. Without much evidence and no security footage, GPD has not been able to help much, Chick said.

***

The store’s Facebook post quickly found its way into Leachianus Facebook groups, where thousands of people gather to share photos and tips on caring for the geckos. The group is private, but Leachie fans from anywhere can join. In one post, a user shows off a gecko the size of their forearm; in others, people share jokes and stories about the first time their Leachies snapped at them.

Cara Richman, 45, owns a Leachie gecko and frequently shops at Gator City Reptiles. She shared the Facebook post about the lost gecko in a Leachianus Facebook group to help the store find her. Her hope was if someone posted online with pictures of the Leachie, people would recognize her and be able to tip off the store. 

Taylor Dunn saw the post about the missing gecko from her home in Salina, Kansas. She owns nine reptiles she keeps in a “reptile room,” and a Leachie is on her list of future additions. She’s passionate about the species and has joined multiple groups where she can share knowledge and involve herself with those who have them. 

She was shocked to see the Facebook post that accused someone of stealing the missing gecko.

Two days later, another post appeared in the group.

“I finally did it,” the post read, along with a picture of a gecko with the same pale gray coloring, spotting and sagging skin as the missing Leachie. Dunn couldn’t help but notice the likeness. 

The user said they had bought the gecko from someone who bought it for $1,800 but did not have time for it. The person was inquiring about the locale of the gecko in the group.

The Alligator sent multiple private messages to the user of the post but did not receive a response for comment.

Dunn became consumed with the case, comparing the post from the shop with this one, and finally messaging Southwick, the general manager. 

When Southwick showed Chick the post, he was confident they had found their gecko.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of scale to be used in the photo, but it was enough that when I compared pattern, color and size, and then when paired with the information that the person did have about the gecko, the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming,” Chick said “I’m supremely confident – I bet everything I’ve ever made – that it’s my gecko.” 

However, Chick doesn’t have high hopes for the Leachie’s return home. He said nothing could be done, and police have put the case on hold after the footage couldn’t reveal if she was even stolen.

“It’s awful to lose something that is valuable but more importantly, it’s a living creature,” Chick said.

With the case of the missing gecko still unsolved, Chick and his employees can only hope she’s safe, comfortable and following the proper diet.

Contact Lucille Lannigan at llannigan@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucilleLannigan.

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Lucille Lannigan

Lucy Lannigan is a second-year journalism student from Key West. She works as a news assistant on the metro team. When Lucy’s not reporting, she loves to paint and spend time outside. 


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