The Exotic Exotics
These shudder-inducing creatures may not appeal to everyone, but there is demand for some less-celebrated invertebrates that have crept into the pet trade.
I cannot count the number of times folks have walked up to me in the shop and said, “You have about the scariest job in the world.” I don’t, of course. Not even close. Although, admittedly, dealing with the general public is terrifying. I do know what they are getting at, though. Most people find the animals I love to be, well, intimidating—if not downright horrific. It would probably surprise them to learn that there are a few creatures we carry that give even me pause.
For instance, we often carry Asian (Ethmostigmus) and South American (Scolependra) giant centipedes. They creep me right out. Centipedes and millipedes belong to the same subphylum (Myriapoda) but, aside from superficial appearances, they couldn’t be more different. Millipedes are mild-mannered, slow and gentle vegetarians specializing in decaying vegetation, as if even growing plants are just too much for them to wrestle down and eat. Centipedes, on the other hand, are predators of the first order.
Centipedes are lightning fast and, at best, irritable. They are voracious feeders, typically not bothering with the niceties of killing their prey; they just start at one end and eat. They bear a prodigious set of pincers called forcipules—even the name sort of sets you back on your heels—that can inject a nasty melange of poisons that probably won’t kill you but may make you wish you were dead. The venom contains a digestant, the consequence of which is a bite that tends to ulcerate for a long stretch before it starts to heal.
These creatures range in size from seven inches to a foot in length, and they are often vividly marked in shades of yellow, red, green and even blue. You know how pretty these colors can be in fish, frogs and birds? Somehow, on a centipede, the same colors just tend to make them seem creepier. So, given all this, what person in their right mind would buy one, or even try to market one as a pet? Well, me—and, presumably, you. Centipedes, in their eerie way, are things of beauty and marvels of engineering. They are simply impressive. And there is a certain type of customer who just swoons for something like this. If you stock them, the customers will come.
At least as awe-inspiring and chill-inducing as the centipede is the less commonly offered camel spider—more properly called the solfugid. These little monsters are denizens of most of the world but tend toward arid climates. They are not giants; the biggest of them has the leg-span of a medium sized tarantula. What is impressive is their appearance: imagine steroid-pumping termites with cartoonishly oversized jaws, which they seem to delight in gnashing back and forth. Their pale, cream-colored bodies tend to be pulpy and bulbous. They possess a face not even a mother solfugid would love—unless you view cannibalism as an expression of love.
Solfugids are non-venomous, but their oversized mandibles (technically called chelicera) are capable of cutting through feathers and thin bones, and, as such, can deliver an incredibly painful bite, so much so that for centuries they were held to be potentially lethal in the public mind. Some of them—and this is particularly unnerving—can actually rattle their jaws.
One more word of caution: the solfugid has a very short lifespan. In my experience with them, a year or two of captive experience is about the best one can expect. Consequently, I am not tempted to get the largest ones out of any given batch, and I stridently warn my customers not to expect much. I also keep my prices low, so as to move them out as quickly as possible.
So, I have spent this article extolling the virtues of some of the creepiest, most unpleasant creatures I sell; still with me? Great, because now I’d like to get you excited about my favorite invertebrates: the vinegaroons.
Also called the whip scorpion, the vinegaroon is native to Africa, Asia and America, but the ones we commonly see offered commercially are from the southwestern U.S. This desert and scrub denizen looks for all the world as dangerous and intimidating as the centipede or solfugid, but it’s not. It is a harmless little guy that gets as much as three inches long, is dark brown and looks like a scorpion without a stinger.
It has replaced the sturdily jointed tail topped by a daunting stinger with a slender, graceful whip-like structure bereft of any kind of injectible defense. Instead, the vinegaroon produces a fine mist of spray that smells like a Caesar salad. Ever gotten vinegar in your eyes? It hurts like heck, but the little vinegaroon produces so little, it doesn’t work on us.
Even the claws, a formidable thing unto themselves with true scorpions, are fixed on the vinegaroon, and they are really quite unable to deliver anything beyond a surprise to humans. What vinnies—is there an exotic creature for which we can’t think up a silly nickname?—do possess is an exceptionally specialized first set of legs. The legs are easily the length of the body, and they are used as a sort of early warning system. Covered in fine cilia, the legs are sensitive to vibrations and air movement, alerting the vinegaroon to potential prey or dangers.
I find vinegaroons easy to keep, much as one would keep a rose-haired tarantula or other scrub invertebrate. A five-gallon tank, a sand/soil mix substrate and a mild heat source will do the trick. I have kept vinnies for as long as a decade; the record lifespan for females seems to be around 20 years. One word of caution: like all invertebrates, vinnies are easily stressed by overfeeding. A cricket or two per week seems to be plenty.
I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that shopkeepers should work hard to keep a large inventory of these relatively obscure inverts. However, if you do have an established clientele for the more commonplace tarantulas, scorpions and millipedes, it makes sense to spice up the shelves with the occasional exotic’s exotic. What’s more, having the sporadic bug that, frankly, most people probably shouldn’t and wouldn’t keep, seems to make the more expected invertebrate even a little more inviting. A little sales trick I use to sell vinnies is to first show off a solfugid or even a scorpion and then follow that up by introducing the vinnie. “See? Just as scary looking, but gentle as a kitty cat!”
Works every time.
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.