A common dynamic I see across the counter is that of the family composed of wildly enthusiastic kids and steadfastly reluctant parents. The kids would gladly pack up the entire contents of my store and haul them home Grinch-style, while the parents are suddenly wishing their offspring had developed an interest in something—anything—more in line with their own aesthetics. Inevitably, the parents will ask me if I have a pet that is “very low maintenance.” I happily, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm, point them over to my selection of plastic animal replicas. If, in fact, they are resolved to the idea of a real, live, neither feathered-nor-furred pet, there are options. They are called bugs.
Our standard stock-in-trade in the bug department consists of tarantulas and scorpions. While the actual danger level of most of these pets is minimal to nonexistent, the perceived danger level among most adults, whose education on such matters most likely comes from old James Bond movies, ranges from deadly to nuclear. So, let’s take it down a notch.
Some of you may know where I am going here, but the parents don’t. I find the best approach with parents is to act a bit conspiratorial, as if you’re taking their side on things. So, I always like to whisper, with a halfway grin: “You know, kids are fascinated with things most people think are gross. I have something that is actually one of the cleanest animals around, but everybody thinks they’re filthy. Kids love ‘em. They’re inexpensive, virtually carefree, don’t make much noise and are loads of fun. You won’t love them, but your kids will. And they’ll be the envy of all their friends.”
The roach. The Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) is a large roach famous for hissing as a defense mechanism. These roaches tend to be disease free, hardy, easy to reproduce, and, if introduced properly, they really do make outstanding first pets. Here are some selling points that adult customers should hear:
- They are flightless and tend to be slower than the German roach that infests our homes. Thus, they aren’t the flight-risk one might fear. If they do escape, they don’t fare well in temperate climes, thus eliminating the fear that they will take over and swarm the floorboards.
- As I said, they are not spreaders of disease or filth. Kept warm and humid, they will thrive and require nothing special in their diet—table scraps, dog kibble, gone-bad fruit and veggies. They are, after all, roaches and will consume it all.
- They are remarkably easy to sex, males possessing two protrusive “horns” on their head shield that females lack. Dad and Mom don’t want them breeding? Just take home a group of all males.
- They generally only live two or three years. You’d be surprised how many parents prefer pets with short life spans.
Of course, the roach is one of the most despised creatures on earth, and a lot of kids will come into your store already having adopted their parent’s revulsion. I like to tell kids that, very often, people don’t like animals when they can’t see their faces. I explain that roaches do have faces, but you can’t see them from above. I take a roach, let him walk up to the tip of my finger, and show the kids its face. I say, “See? It has two eyes, a nose and a mouth—just like you. Only cuter.” This little joke works with a lot of kids, but of course, not all.
Crawly, Not Creepy
For those kids not impressed with the beauty and majesty of the roach, sometimes the millipede is just the trick. Just a few years ago, the Madagascar Giant was commonly available. Those days are sadly behind us. However, there are many species native to the United States, and many of them get fairly big and are beautifully colored. The care is similar to that of the roach: warm, humid conditions work for most of them. They are fossorial, so a nice loam with perhaps a branch to hide beneath works well. Millipedes are strictly vegetarian, so vegetable and fruit scraps will generally do the trick.
Millipedes are gentle little souls, with mouth parts incapable of biting even if they had the will, which they don’t. When disturbed, they can ooze a noxious smelling and sometimes skin-staining fluid, but that’s the limit of their defense. On the other hand, they cannot stand up to rough handling or being dropped, and will break or suffer internal injury if abused.
One further word of warning: do not confuse millipedes with centipedes. Centipedes are an altogether different kettle of fish. They are lightning fast and voracious predators, capable of inflicting a painful bite. Their venom is digestive in nature, so a wound from a centipede bite tends to get worse and literally eat away flesh before it starts to heal. How does one differentiate between the two? Millipedes have significantly smaller and more legs than centipedes. Millipedes have rounded bodies, giving the effect of a slinky or long tube. Centipedes’ bodies tend to be flattened and angular, looking more like a series of boxcars. But mostly, it’s the speed: if it’s almost too fast to follow, it’s a centipede.
If your customers want something with maybe a little more action, you might offer them a Chinese Mantis (Tenodera angustipennis), a large green to brown insect that, at this point, is pretty much a U.S. native. These are the very same mantis from which the garden supply store egg cases are often available. A warm, humid tank with plenty of foliage (real or plastic) will serve one well. Note: I said one. Mantises are famously cannibalistic—and not just as part of the mating ritual. In fact, most breeders simplify the job of raising babies by initially keeping them together and letting the strongest babies predate the rest, separating them only after they molt a few times.
Mantises are active hunters, and part of the joy of keeping them is watching them stalk their prey. Gifted with binocular vision—a rare bug trait that mantises share with jumping spiders, which are similarly fun pets as a result—they will hunt crickets with a stealth and purpose that is easy to anthropomorphize. In fact, mantis keepers need to show some restraint. As food in the wild is often hard to come by and harder to catch, mantises have evolved to require only a few successful catches a week. As they will eat every time they catch food, they will often eat themselves to an early grave in a captive situation in which the keeper is infatuated with watching the hunt.
As an active predator, a large mantis is capable of giving a surprisingly painful though harmless and toxin-free bite.
Still too much for a reluctant parent? One of my very best sellers is the Tadpole Shrimp (Triops sp.), a creature so weird, so cool and so easy, that it defies belief. Remember the sea monkeys (brine shrimp) we kept as kids? You know, the king, queen and kids that never looked remotely like the picture on the package, much less monkeys? Well, imagine a sea monkey that grows to two-inches long, lives in fresh water, and is a native to the Utah and Mojave deserts. That’s right: a shrimp that lives in the desert. They come in the same kind of package that sea monkeys did, based around the same kind of “hatch the eggs and watch them grow” notion, but I think they are infinitely more fun. Looking like a small trilobite or horseshoe crab, they evoke the very beginnings of life, extraterrestrial aliens and cuteness, all at once. There are several dealers who produce Triops kits; I have been very happy with the Toyops company.
Always remember that the customer who makes a small investment in a simple bug but has a positive experience is the customer who will be back for bigger and better things. The lowly roach can be the gateway to a lifelong hobby.
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.