Of all the animals I feature in my traveling reptile and exotics show, none elicits a more visceral and emotional response than the scorpion. Every time I pull her out, I feel like I have touched a raw nerve at the very core of my audiences’ beings. As the whole point of my shows is to demystify animals, I know I have entered some very important territory.
People are equally surprised at the notion of scorpions as pets, and yet they can, in their way, make fine pets indeed. Surprised? Let’s talk about it.
The first hurdle to cross is to recognize them as things of great beauty. People are often so wrapped up in their revulsion that they cannot see them for what they are—miracles of design and construction. They are elegantly built, a perfect embodiment of form-as-function, intricate yet sleek, mechanical in movement and yet graceful as gazelles. Even their coloring is a thing at which to marvel.
The second hurdle to cross is the notion that scorpions are, by definition, dangerous. Yes, they do possess stingers and toxins, and they are willing to use them. But the notion that they are horrifically dangerous and beyond handling is ludicrously overblown. There are potentially lethal scorpions in the world; not so much in the pet trade, though I do see very "hot" scorpions occasionally offered for sale.
Most of the scorpions in the pet trade are roughly as toxic as a honeybee. To be truthful, a very small percentage of people can have a possibly fatal allergic reaction to honeybees, so a little common sense and caution are indicated here. I would ALWAYS mention the possibility of allergic reaction to your customers before selling a scorpion. But, as I said, the toxins of most commonly sold scorpions are mild. I have been stung three times in my 40 years of scorpion wrangling; each time was the result of human error, and none had any serious consequence.
Then there is the fact that many scorpion species can be tamed. It used to be that the most popular pet scorpion was the West African Emperor (Pandinus imperator), which seemed to come directly out of the forest as tame as a puppy. Due to the ravages of war and human politics, there are no longer Emperors broadly available, although I do know of folks breeding them (captive born babies command very high prices).
The similar looking Asian Forest Scorpion (Heterometrus ssp.) doesn’t get quite as big and isn’t as effortlessly tamed, but it calms down with a little bit of handling and can be a very reasonable pet once it’s used to its handler. I have also had success taming Giant Desert Hairy Scorpions (Hadrurus arizonensis) and South African Flat Rocks (Hadogenes troglodytes), which are unlikely to sting but have a wallop of a pinch!
The Flat Rocks are a really different looking scorpion, with large, oval and somewhat bulbous bodies, and a comically small and skinny tail with a more formidable set of pincers. The Desert Hairys have an outstanding color: a sort of greenish-tinted amber. The Forests are jet black and almost the template for what most people think scorpions should look like. All three are large scorpions, though none are as big as the truly huge Emperors.
I generally break down scorpion care into two divisions: arid and humid. The Emperors and Asian Forests are deep rain forest dwellers and will want mild heat but very high humidity. Keep them on a potting soil blend or cypress mulch. The Flat Rocks and Hairys are desert and scrub dwellers, and will be happier on a sand base with one corner equipped with damp moss.
Otherwise, scorpion care is fairly straightforward and easy. A small tank will do, with plenty of hide spots (Flat Rocks, in particular, are crevice dwellers), with mild heat (mid 70s to low 80s is generally where you will want things). Keep in mind that they are nocturnal; expect nothing of them in the daytime, but, once used to their tank, there is a good chance that they will come out at night to explore.
Many people kill arachnids by overfeeding them or giving them food that is too rich. While they will eat anything they can hold down every time food is offered, their systems are not designed for power feeding, and vertebrate prey should be offered only on the rarest of occasions. A cricket or two a week is a perfectly reasonable feeding regimen.
I mentioned earlier that scorpions’ color is a thing of interest. I like to have kids imagine that they are walking through the woods at night at the same time as my Forest Scorpion.
"Would you be able to see it?" I ask. "Of course not! It’s black!"
Well, strictly speaking, it is not black. I point out to them that, in the right light, they have a greenish or blueish sheen. This greenish black color has a specific name: corbeau. Now, the color is what the word means in English, but it’s drawn from the French word corbeau, which refers not to the color, but to one of the few other animals that have that color: the raven!
"But you still couldn’t see it at night!" they cry, to which I respond, "You are absolutely right. But they have no problem seeing each other!"
I explain that unlike us, the scorpions see ultraviolet light, which comes from the stars. Using a blacklight, I show the kids: SCORPIONS FLUORESCE! They glow an eerie greenish color in the dark!
This, of course, is also a brilliant sales technique when you want to sell a scorpion, and to that end, Zoo Med and Exoterra both make blacklight bulbs for making your bugs glow. But don’t just leave the scorpions lit up as a constant; they tend to lose the glow under steady exposure!
One more thing with which you can wow junior naturalists: ask kids what on their own bodies is the same as a scorpion’s claws. They will inevitably start pinching the air with their hands. Good guess, but wrong. The truth is that a scorpion’s claws are the outer part of the scorpion’s mouth, so, more accurately, they are like your lips. The same thing goes for their distant cousins, crabs and lobsters. Everybody loves eating lobster lips, right?
I would never push somebody toward a scorpion as a pet. But, if someone is already so-inclined, I would also not discourage them. They are beautiful, fascinating and surprisingly tractable. I have referred to three species that are currently not hard to stock and I can recommend whole-heartedly. By the same token, I would be leery of carrying some of the more toxic individuals for anyone other that the most advanced arachnoculturists. As with any other animals that may be new to you as a responsible seller, you absolutely need to do due diligence on their adaptability to captive life, their legality and their potential downsides.
Don’t get stung! PB
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.