The Lowly Roach
The oft-maligned roach is here to stay, so retailers might as well profit from the inherent-and perhaps surprising-upsides to having roaches as pets.
Ours is the kind of business that attracts window shoppers and tire kickers in overwhelming numbers. Everybody seems to like to wander the aisles of a pet store, especially one that features an array of actual potential pets. Even the customers of full-line stores, in for their dog food or kitty litter, will take an extra few minutes to peruse the exotics section, if for no other reason than to consider what kind of person could possibly find satisfaction in owning such weird pets. Being in a store like mine, which features nothing but what most people consider “freaky” pets, you get used to the appalled reactions of the tourists.
However, more than any other cage in the store, it is our display of pet roaches that gets the biggest reaction. “Wha...? Why...? Hey Marge, get a load of this! Who would want a pet roach?”
Well, sir, lots of us.
I myself was surprised how much of a warm reception was given the Madagascan hissing roach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) when it first appeared on the pet market some 20 years ago. After all, for centuries, people around the globe have considered cockroaches to be the lowliest of vermin, engendering an entire industry of bug exterminators and being the subject of countless scenes in horror films. But of course, many of us root for the underdog—none are more under than roaches. And hissing roaches really can make good pets.
First of all, while many roaches can be implicated in the spread of serious diseases—gastroenteritis being chief among them—hissers seem to be free of any diseases that might transfer to humans. As befits roaches, they are durable, easy to set up and maintain, and—this will be the hard part for some to swallow—actually quite charming.
I like to tell kids that the real reason people universally dislike roaches is that, when they move about, they hide their faces. People instinctively dislike creatures that hide their faces. So, I like to take a hisser, let it walk up to the tips of my fingers, and show youngsters their little faces. “See?” I like to say. “Look at him wave to you with his antennae. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth... He does have a face, just like you! Only, cute.”
Hissers really do live up to the name, but only as long as they are not used to human handling. Even a few minutes of handling them will familiarize them enough with the human touch that they not only stop hissing, but settle down in a friendly, placid way. They are one of the few wingless cockroaches, which is an obvious advantage to the consideration of them as pets, and in any discussion with reluctant moms, this becomes a very important selling point.
They are easy to sex: males have two raised bumps on their upper carapace above the head; females have greatly diminished or absent bumps. They are also easy to maintain. Give them a warm, humid tank, and make sure it is well sealed. They can climb glass, and as they breed prolifically, babies can go unnoticed and escape.
If kept anywhere with a real winter, even a reasonably mild one, they will not be able to establish themselves in a house or outdoors, but in a semi-tropical environment, there is a risk of entry into the ecosystem. In my view, the worst thing we can do to our industry is to be responsible for the introduction of alien species, and, more importantly, it is one of the worst things we can do to our own ecosystems. We need to be, and to be perceived as, an industry with a moral imperative, and being a conduit for this kind of reckless environmental harm is reprehensible. As pet storeowners, we need to come down on the right side of this issue, and to that end, we need to educate our own clientele about the harm that can come from irresponsible handling of potentially injurious species.
Well, I’ll get off my high horse and get back to roach wrangling. Give them potting soil and plenty of cover, and, frankly, feed them like they are roaches. Dog kibble, cat food, table scraps, pet foods of all kinds—after all, they are roaches and thus camp followers to human diets for many millennia.
In fact, they are so easy to raise and keep, they have become the least expensive pet we sell, and thus, like rats, crickets, goldfish and anoles before them, they have now crossed the line from being sold exclusively as pets to being sold as food for pets. While my shop sells each roach as a pet for a few dollars, we offer them in bulk as feeders for a fraction of that cost, thus opening two sorts of markets for the same creature. We also offer a few other roach species for food—the “dubia” roach being the most common—but only the hisser seems to have caught the public imagination as a pet.
I mentioned that roaches have held a large sway in the public imagination as the villains of horror films. I certainly enjoy the giant murderous roaches of the Mimic film series, but if you want to see your exact species of pet in a horror film, check out the outrageous, over-the-top, unintentionally funny movie, Bug!, a 1975 film from the pen of horror/exploitation genius William Castle. It was the first time I had seen hissers in action—as mutant escapees from an underground lair, capable of starting fires, communicating with humans and generally plotting the destruction of mankind. Let me just say that theirs is some of the best acting in the film.
It is often said that roaches were walking this earth long before the dawn of man and will be walking it long after our time here is done. But for now, they are with us, and among us, and so we might as well get used to them. One of the best ways to remove the stigma of the roach is to embrace it, and to turn it from vermin to pet. Embrace a roach today.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.