Move over, Fido. Take a seat, Fluffy. There’s new pet in town and it might be coming to a seven-year-old’s bedroom near you. It’s not a hamster, not a turtle, not even a ferret. It’s a cockroach.
Now, I grew up in Texas where we paid people to kill cockroaches for us. They’re not pets, they’re pests. I never believed myself capable of owning — intentionally anyway — an animal that was the explicit target of Raid.
When my seven-year-old first asked me if he could have a pet cockroach I laughed an admittedly sadistic laugh. “Absolutely not,” I blurted out, rolling my eyes in that oh, so motherly way intended for every other adult in the room. “When I was your age I stepped on cockroaches. They’re gross!” I declared, satisfied that my firmness and conviction would be respected, and that the request wasn’t very serious anyway.
Then I saw them. Those tears. My son had bonded. I watched helplessly as his face contorted into anguish, the tears began streaming down his cheeks, and the target of his affection crawled innocently over his gentle, caressing hands. Yuck!
We were standing in the small classroom for the Wild Bear Center for Nature Discovery, where he and his younger sister spend two hours after school every Thursday. The program, which my children love, teaches them about countless facets of nature and science. They study such diverse topics as the formation of water into ice crystals, the contents of owl scat , and what to do if you see a bear on a hike. It is an excellent curriculum designed to demystify nature, and explain scientific principles that matter to young children.
The Wild Bear classroom is a small zoo of sorts. There is a fairly large snake, a tarantula, a compost box full of worms, and a converted aquarium containing about twenty Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Many of the animals are used to demonstrate the circle-of-life concept. A few weeks ago the children were treated to the spectacle of the snake eating a live rat, and baby cockroaches, it turns out, make excellent food for the tarantula. The teachers at the school are impeccably attentive to the kids, shielding the younger or more sensitive ones from anything too disturbing (several were loath to watch the snake eating the rat), but also noting special interests, anything that a child might be particularly enthusiastic about.
Thus, when I arrived to collect my kids one day a few weeks ago, my son presented me with the insect of his dreams, and asked in that irresistible way that I thought was reserved for Cocker Spaniels, “Can we keep him?”
After my initial refusal I realized I had approached his request with the sensitivity of…well, a cockroach. So, I tried to temper my disgust, and reason with him.
“We can’t have a cockroach, Sweetie. Arnie would eat him.” Arnie is our cat, and I had used this argument several times to avoid obtaining unwanted hamsters, fish, and even an ant farm. I, of course, have no idea if my cat would protect me from ants or even a cockroach, but it seemed a reasonable argument, and it always worked in the past.
This time, though, my son was not to be deterred that easily. “I’ll protect him,” he said honestly, gazing at his new love.
“They carry disease,” I said desperately.
“Actually, they don’t,” interjected one of the Wild Bear teachers. “They’re really very clean.” I smiled weakly at her helpfulness, already composing the note I would attach to my next tuition check.
I finally resorted to “Let’s go home and discuss it with Dad.”
Three days later, January 26th, became what my children now refer to as “Cockroach Day,” and will be forever celebrated as such in the Guyton household. We went to Wild Bear, the kids giddy with excitement, to pick up our new charge. My son, of course, remembered the specific creature to which his heart was pledged, and spent about ten minutes finding him among the other pretenders. The right cockroach (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) had just the right number of spots on his back, and a broken antenna. He was a “he,” thank heavens, which meant his antennae were slightly fuzzy looking, and much more importantly, that he would not reproduce. When the cockroach was selected, my son gently picked him up, ignoring the startling hiss that the creature emitted, and placed him into a box we had fashioned into a temporary home.
My son named him Tickles, apparently derived from the sensation one receives when the cockroach crawls up your arm. I wouldn’t know.
Back at the house my children busily gathered dirt and sticks to line our old fish tank. I rubbed Vaseline around the top edges of the inside of the glass, just in case he tried to scale the walls (which, to my knowledge, he has never done). The kids decorated a piece of cardboard to cover the tank so that Arnie would not have access. My five-year-old daughter drew a heart with the words “I Love Tickles,” and my son drew his new pet’s portrait. We fed him some cat food, and a small chunk of carrot, and Tickles is now happily installed as a member of the family.
After a couple of weeks of cockroach ownership, I can honestly, though unbelievably, state that it’s really not so bad. I don’t even mind checking to be sure that the kids spray the inside of the glass with water every morning, and doing it for them when they forget. I even took it upon myself to do some research, and was amazed at the volume of information available on the proper care and feeding of this particular breed of cockroach. After some study, and some quality time with Tickles, I’m here to tell you that, as pets go, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, owning a cockroach actually has its advantages:
They really are clean. There’s no poop, no litter boxes, and no smell. Unlike other insects, which can emit a pheromone that is detectable and unpleasant to humans, the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach has virtually no odor. They do not, as I had asserted, “carry disease.” This mistaken impression comes from the fact that some cockroaches in the wild (if you can call even the nicer homes in virtually every southern state “the wild”) can transfer food-borne bacteria by crawling from one type of food to another.
They’re docile. MHC’s don’t bite or sting, and are okay to handle, which my kids do enthusiastically. They have no wings, so they don’t fly. They’re fairly large (some can grow to the size of a small mouse, though Tickles is…well, cockroach sized), and they don’t even run very fast. On the occasions when a roach has fallen out of the hands of a child at Wild Bear, I have noted that they can be easily picked up and placed back in the tank. You may, of course, need the assistance of a seven-year-old for this task.
They’re low-maintenance. They need a few pieces of cat food or dog food every week, which can be supplemented with the occasional cockroach “treat”: a chunk of carrot or lettuce, or a small piece of fruit that you were going to throw away anyway. The carbohydrates are particularly necessary if you are attempting to breed the little critters. Tickles has a lid full of water, and we spray the inside of the glass every morning so he can drink from the droplets. While my research has taught me that they are capable of scaling glass walls, Tickles has never appeared interested in doing so.
They’re interesting. The Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, the only breed I know of that are suitable as pets (not that I’m in the market), are one of very few insects that make noise, and the only one known to do so using their respiratory system. Most insect noise is made by rubbing body parts together, a la crickets, but MHC’s — triggered by fear, aggression, or the mating process — force air through their spiracles, or breathing tubes, to make a rather loud hissing sound. They have intricate nervous systems, which makes them useful in medical research, and they molt six times in the first five months of life.
One website I consulted informed me that MHC’s are “found only in the jungles of the African island of Madagascar.” I happen to know that at least one resides in my son’s bedroom, but indeed Madagascar is the only place on earth where they are native. They are all the rage, however, in captive settings that attempt to teach children about nature and animals. They can be found at insect zoos, and in classrooms everywhere. My daughter’s kindergarten class has a few that just produced a brood.
Once Tickles arrived at our home I adjusted nicely, and even began to be grateful for him when I consider the unpleasant alternatives. At least my son didn’t ask for the Wild Bear tarantula or rat-eating snake. And since Tickles came along there has been no more talk of ant farms.
Of course, the greatest fun I have had with our new pet is telling people about him, especially my relatives in Texas. My announcement is usually followed by a strange silence, and then whatever quip pops into their heads first. “Want some more?” asked one of my brothers. “What’s next? A pet mosquito?” asked another. But the most thoughtful response I received was from a neighbor who knows my son well. “I can see that,” she said without so much as a wince. Her son is friends with mine, and similar in temperament and interests. “They’re sort of the insect type,” she remarked. I could see her silently considering the prospect of owning a pet cockroach. Perhaps you should, too.