The Scorpion King
Despite—or perhaps because of—the aura of danger they carry with them, scorpions can make an intriguing pet.
When I was a boy, I had your standard little 10-gallon freshwater tropical fish tank. I loved that tank. It was stocked with tetras, mollies, fancy guppies, angelfish, and (of course, in my case) fire-bellied newts. One day, I was at the Woolworths store—which, in those days, was the closest we had to a real pet store—and there was a new option available for my tank: sharks!
I could hardly breathe. You mean I could have a real shark in my tank? But what about the other fish? But who cares? Shark! I could have a shark! And they were only 49 cents! Life is good!
Closer inspection revealed that this “shark” was in fact a small freshwater fish with a similar body shape but none of the mystique. I was crestfallen, but nonetheless I bought one and thereafter tried with great effort to imagine that I had a real shark in my tank.
I tell this story to illustrate just how much we humans are intrigued by “dangerous” animals and how much we want to assert control and order on the natural world. I desperately wanted the terror of the oceans in my little aquarium.
Of course, most shark species are largely benign. Similarly, scorpions are imbued with an aura of terror while actually being mostly harmless. While some are potentially dangerous—and some are actually lethal—many scorpions have no more impact from their venom than that of a bee sting. The devil’s advocate in me insists I remind you that some people die from bee stings, and that is probably true of scorpion venom as well. But for most of us, the typical North American scorpion sting is more a painful annoyance than anything else.
Another aspect of the intrigue with scorpions that correlates with sharks is the beauty of their design. Even as a small child, I marveled at the sleek symmetry and mid-century modern, function-meets-form clarity of sharks’ shapes and movement. Scorpions are, of course, more elaborate and ornate in their construction—but, again, they are marvels of architecture. If sharks are mid-century modern, scorpions are gothic. Both are valid styles; both are high points in the history of design.
It used to be that the most common scorpions in the pet trade were emperor scorpions out of Western Africa and the nearly identical and almost as big Asian forest scorpion. When I started in the trade nearly 40 years ago, it was widely held that the big difference between the two was that the forests were almost instantly tame and emperors were, well, difficult. Somewhere along the line, probably as a function of changes in where each was collected, emperors became quite tractable and forests grew temperamental. Somewhere around a decade ago, politics and war ended the importation of emperor scorpions. Currently, the Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus spp.) is the most common pet scorpion. Most fortuitously, I have noticed in the past year or so, the forests have once more reverted to being an easy-to-tame scorpion.
There are more than 30 species of these, and exactly which one ends up in your shop has a lot to do with where they were collected. As most of them are nearly identical in looks and care, for our purposes we are going to treat them as one. They are a rainforest animal and consequently need moderate temperatures (mid-70s to mid-80s) and high humidity. I keep them on a sand and humus mixture with a bark hide space and some damp moss at one end. I recommend heating with a pad as opposed to a light, as all scorpions are nocturnal. This also allows you to cover the screen top of your tank with a piece of glass, plastic or wood, thus capturing your humidity.
Here’s a point I cannot emphasize enough: do not overfeed your arachnid. Many people enjoy watching these creatures hunt and eat, but, like humans, they will easily overfeed and live a short life as a result. A cricket or two per week is more than enough food.
Forest scorpions—at least the ones currently being imported—become tame with relatively little work. Here’s how it’s done. Newly imported scorpions will feel quite defensive, particularly toward something approaching from above. So, open your new scorpion’s cage and gently pick it up by its tail using tongs. You will notice the scorpion attacking your tongs with its claws. Those claws are sharp enough and strong enough to draw blood. As it is attacking the tongs, lower it into the palm of your free hand and release the tongs. The scorpion will likely settle right down. Allow it to walk around your palm. Your palm is a flat surface—the scorpion will not sting it any more than it would sting the ground upon which it stands.
As you gain confidence, approach the scorpion from behind, and gently but firmly grasp its stinger between your thumb and forefinger. Keep in mind that the stinger can only move forward and backward. As long as you take it from either side it cannot sting you. Pick it up and quickly place it back in its cage, not allowing it enough time to grab you as it grabbed your tongs.
Repeat this until both you and the scorpion are comfortable with the routine. As you grow in confidence, try enclosing the scorpion in both hands by bringing both palms together from beneath it and then forming a cave with the scorpion inside. If you do this right, the scorpion will not be able to sting you, nor will it want to, as it now feels covered and safe.
Once this routine is established and your scorpion is familiar with you, the next step is to be able to pet it. Approach from the side rather than from the front or from above. Given time, you should be able to free-handle scorpions with the same ease as handling corn snakes.
There are a few other commonly offered scorpions of note. I really like the flat rock scorpions (Hadogenes spp.), a very large and somewhat bizarre-looking animal out of South Africa. With very large claws, a rotund but flattened body and an inordinately slim tail, they seem like another planet’s version of a scorpion. Like forest scorpions, they are easy to tame and mildly toxic. Unlike the forest, these live in scrublands and rocky outcroppings, so they will do better with overhead heat, a sandy substrate, low humidity and water provided by a small clip of damp moss at the cool end of the cage.
Even more important to keep dry would be the desert hairy scorpion (Hadrurus spp.), a native of the southwestern U.S. I have seen tame desert hairies; I haven’t tamed one myself. They are faster and more irascible than the others I have covered.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more thing that increases scorpions’ wow factor exponentially. Under a blacklight, they fluoresce, producing a brilliant green light. No one is sure why; perhaps it is a way for them to find each other in the desert at night. At any rate, it’s a great way to bring home a sale on an animal already cloaked in mystique.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.