Animals
1:57 pm
Tue April 24, 2012

A Bug's Life: Store Caters To Collectors Of Crawly Pets

Originally published on Tue April 24, 2012 3:49 pm

If you're the kind of person who screams at the sight of an insect or spider — or worse, steps on it — then a new store in Tucson, Ariz., might not be the best place for you to pick up a new family pet.

Owner Ken "The Bug Guy" MacNeil says his store is the only retail pet shop in the country devoted to insects and other arthropods. Judging from the recent opening day crowd at the store, plenty of people think the critters make great pets.

"I love bugs, and I love looking for them in nature," says Andrew Olson, an opening day visitor. "I love watching my bugs at home, so I'm a dyed-in-the-wool bug nerd."

Olson says he and his brother have about 150 pet bugs, and we're not talking the traditional ant farm — which the store does sell. The store caters to those interested in tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions and the infamous hissing Madagascar cockroach.

MacNeil says that if there's a critter he can get, he'll get it, as long as it's legal. "Right now I've got some snails out back and I'm waiting for the USDA to come by and make sure we can sell them," he says.

Ken MacNeil turned his own lifelong love of all things that crawl, creep and scurry into a thriving online business. Then, he decided he wanted an old-fashioned pet store, too. So he opened a small shop in midtown Tucson with big, black bugs painted on the walls and small tanks and cages everywhere. His most popular item: the tarantulas.

"People are always looking for different kinds," he says. "There [are] really rare ones that run up to $700 if you get a big female. Then there [are] cheaper ones [for] people just getting into the hobby that are just $5 or $10."

Even if you have no great fear of bugs, you still might wonder why people think they make good pets. Turns out, they're incredibly easy to take care of, some eating only once a week or so.

"Usually, you just throw a cricket in there, a little bit of water, that's it," MacNeil says.

MacNeil has 10,000 insects, arachnids and other arthropods in the store's inventory, but he needs only two employees. Customer Alisha Nichols says she has a dozen tarantulas at home in tanks, along with a cat that loves to stare at the spiders and paw at the crickets she keeps as spider food. Nichols says she finds the tarantulas soothing.

"I like to meditate with tarantulas," Nichols says. "It's almost like having a Zen garden, just working with their plants, making the little tanks they have as beautiful as possible."

On the other hand, a dog licks you, a cat rubs up against you, but you don't exactly want to cuddle with something like a deathstalker scorpion — since it can kill you. Most tarantulas, however, tolerate being held. They'll crawl up your arm, but they're not exactly responsive. Olson says insects are kind of biological robots, and that's what he likes about them.

"Because there's no emotional reciprocity in the relationship with them, I tend not to get as attached to them," Olson says. "So I don't have to feel bad about them dying."

The bugs couldn't care less if they're pets, so there's also that, but a tarantula can live up 20 to 30 years. With that type of life span, it still seems like it would become a member of the family, albeit an aloof one.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.