Insects as pets

Not many people keep insects as pets nowadays, although the ancient Chinese kept crickets in little cages, to hear them sing.

Over the years, I've kept about 20 different species as pets, but George the monarch caterpillar was my first insect.

When I was a college student, I had a pet tarantula.  (Spiders are much different from insects.)  While I was driving on a back road at Stanford, I saw him crossing the pavement and took him home to my dorm.

Having no other handy cage, I put him in my empty waste basket.  There he sat for several months.  When I entered the room, he'd feel my vibrations and scuttle around the bottom of the basket.  I imagined it was a dance of joy at my homecoming, like Fido's greeting.   Perhaps not.

I'd toss in a few flies or a big bug every day or so, which he happily ate.  But after several months, he died--probably from starvation or dehydration.  His communication skills were poor, so he couldn't communicate what he needed (as if I was listening).

Pros and cons of insect pets

Caterpillars are very different from kitties and doggies.

  • No neurotic behaviors or misbehavior.  Never chew on your shoes.
  • Don't run off (at least not fast)
  • Food is inexpensive.
  • No need for vaccinations or license.
  • Expands your mind.  Teaches about metamorphosis.
  • Insect metamorphosis puts human puberty in perspective.
  • You get three pets for the price of one.  Caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.
  • Easy to squish if you're not careful.  
  • Therefore, not good for small children.
  • Not cute or cuddly (depending on your definition).
  • Poor communication skills. Don't lick your face or wag tails.
  • Won't catch a frisbee, not even a small one.  Don't learn tricks.  ZERO tricks.
  • Can't be housebroken. (But their dry frass is easy to clean up.)
What if your dog had the metamorphosis lifestyle

Imagine that through bio-engineering, Monsanto comes out with a "three-in-one" pet, also known as the "BirdDog(TM)." 

It has a life cycle something like a monarch butterfly.  Of course, you're skeptical at first.  You're a traditional dog lover.  But the kids saw an advertisement on TV, and there's no denying them.  You give in, reasoning that: "At least it starts out like a dog."

True.  Down at the pet store, after swiping your credit card, the man with a nervous tic gives you a 50 lb bag of puppy chow, with a tiny egg in a special container on top of the bag.  It looks like a sparrow egg--the BirdDog(TM) egg.

After a few days, the egg has hatched.  The pieces of shell are there, and a small hole chewed in the bag underneath the shell.

The kids are anxious to see, so you open the bag, and look in with a flashlight.  Inside is a tiny little puppy--smaller than a mouse--chewing incessantly on the pellets inside.  He pays no attention to you--just keeps on eating.  "Don't play with him, kids.  He's too tiny.  You might hurt him."

After a few days, the puppy is now the size of a rat--but he keeps on eating. So the kids can see, you put him in a plastic wash tub, and pour the food around him.  He just keeps eating.  Now he's the size of a hamster.  Now a Mexican chihuahua.

Rover is kind of cute, but not much fun.  The kids are losing interest.  They try to cuddle him, but he keeps dropping large pellets of frass into the folds of their clothes.  "Yuck!"

Every day, the puppy turns brown pellets of dry food into piles of smaller brown frass.  You dump out the frass, and pour in more food.  That's easy enough.

You're starting to look forward to the big change, the metamorphosis.  This particular kind of patented BirdDogTM is going to change into a scarlet macaw, you've been assured by the man with the nervous tic.   But you're not exactly sure when or how this is going to happen.

A feeling of suspense starts to build in the house.  The kids come home from school and poke the puppy, who is now large and bloated.  They're looking for any unusual change.

Finally, after coming home from the movies on a Friday night, the puppy is gone!

You look all around, under the sofa and chairs, till finally someone thinks to look up.  There he is!  A big brown sack hanging motionless from the ceiling in the corner of the family room. The brown sack sways a little whenever you call his name.  Again suspense.  What next?

Five days later, when you get up in the morning, the sack is moving.  The side splits, and you can see bright red bulging out.  Soon a red wing pops out.  A scarlet macaw emerges, though looking wet and shriveled.  Over the next hour, you watch in amazement as the wings of the bright red bird slowly expand.  He begins to slowly fan his wings, drying them off.  

Finally, when one of the kids approaches to poke him, he suddenly flies off with a screech so loud your heart stops!  He flies into the glass of the patio door, thumps loudly, and falls to the floor, motionless.
Below: The author with Rover.

Soon, he comes to and walks restlessly around the floor, screeching.  Now the name "Rover" doesn't seem
so appropriate.  He's pretty, but not the placid creature you had before.

You feed him on piles of overripe bananas you get on sale, but all he does is flap incessantly at the southern windows of your house, knocking over the African violets lined up there.

The kids have stopped paying any attention--they wanted a dog.

Reluctantly--because it's hard to let go of something you've cared for--you decide you'll have to release him.  All he wants is to fly south to Mexico, to roost for the winter in the tall mountain pines of Michoacan.

So with a tear in your eye, you tie to his leg a message in Spanish that came with the bag of puppy chow: "Greetings from the US."  You go outside, and toss Rover into the air.  He flies two circles around your house, then turns south and disappears.

If only raising kids were that easy.  Now there's a project for Monsanto.

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