SOME NEW Yorkers are escalating the age-old war on cockroaches by setting reptiles loose in their dwellings to hunt the insects down, according to The New York Times. The creature most often used for this purpose is described by The Times as a "ferocious little lizard that barks like a dog, . . . has feet like suction cups" and "is a natural predator of roaches." It is also, says the newspaper, "a natural ally of New Yorkers who don't mind falling asleep to the sound of scurrying and crunching, scurrying and crunching" as the animal scoots around all night devouring roaches.

If this story were from the supermarket tabloids instead of The Times, we could expect reports to follow on giant lizards roaming the sewer system, from which they emerge occasionally to snatch an unwary stockbroker or hot-dog vendor. The reality is less lurid but still interesting. A man interviewed by The Times said he bought one of the lizards -- they are members of a family known as geckos -- after all other methods of getting rid of cockroaches had failed him. Since then, he said, his home has been roach-free. "You almost never see them," he said of the lizards, "but you'll hear them bark." (They also make sounds that one reference work renders as follows: "tsee, tsee," "yeck, yeck, yeck").

The most popular type of gecko available in New York pet shops is the Tokay. Although most of those being sold are two to eight inches long, they can grow to 16 inches in their usual habitat of Java and Malaysia, where they have long lived in and around human dwellings and are "appreciated as a token of good luck," according to Grzimek's Animal Encyclopedia. This same work describes the entire gecko family as "harmless animals."

In fact, the chief reservations concerning their presence in New York seem to be held by those who worry about the lizards' welfare in an environment some feel may be too cold or dangerous for them. If they are half as hardy as the cockroaches, though, they'll be fine. Lizards have been on this Earth for more than 160 million years, cockroaches for perhaps 400 million, which is a great deal more than can be said for any of us. In the distant future, long after Manhattan has fallen otherwise silent, there will probably be one sound still heard on the east side, west side, all around the former town, a sound something like this: "bark-bark-bark, yeck-yeck-yeck, crunch-crunch-crunch."