As someone who lives in London and lacks the sufficient funds to own a pet, I've had to fulfill my constant need for animal interaction through some pretty unorthodox means. I've literally run after people with dogs, and once wept with happiness when my neighbor's cat found a way to sneak into my house.
But nothing compares to the joy I felt when I came across Em, a.k.a. Emzotic, on YouTube. The 29-year-old animal educator owns some of the coolest animals I have ever seen contained within a London apartment ("it's not your standard sized flat," she reassures me), including an African land snail couple called Shrek and Delilah, and two Madagascan hissing cockroaches that go by the name of Rice and Beans. So far, Em's videos featuring exotic animals have attracted over 68,000 subscribers. I spoke to her about being the proud mom of the kind of insects that usually attract fear and disgust.
BROADLY: How did you first get started out with owning these animals and working with them?
Em: Part of animal education means taking a whole variety of different animals into schools and giving presentations. When I was first started, I was really happy to take out birds and mammals and all the cute stuff. I never really taken much notice of insects of invertebrates in general. When I first started, I was a little bit nervous myself and soon got over my own fear. I know there's nothing scary at all about them, and I just really fell in love with them because they're like mini aliens. They just really appeal to me, and they're absolutely fascinating.
Which insect led you to get over your fears?
It was the cockroaches! I remember having to reach into a cockroach enclosure to take out the old food and put in new food and I thought, "Oh, I really don't want to have to do this." Eventually over time I got desensitized to it and start touching them a little bit and then bringing them out, and letting them crawl on me a little. I realized that there was honestly nothing to worry about! They're such a sweet and slow species; they're so perfect for anybody who wants to start getting over a fear of bugs.
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What do the cockroaches eat?
Strictly vegetable and fruit matter. I will give them a little bit of protein by way of cat biscuits now and then, but they're not really interested in that. Right now, the one I'm looking at has some apple, carrot, cucumber, and a little bit of oatmeal.
This cockroach has a better diet than I do.
A lot of people say that! When I do my local shopping, I'm getting all of these greens and people are going like, "Wow, you have such a great diet." I'm like, "No, the Super Noodles are for me, these are for my animals."
What about all the insects you own? What do the snails eat?
The snails are much like the cockroaches. They'll eat string greens, they love cucumber, sweet potato is their favorite. They are so voracious. They're actually a pest in their native land in Africa. They can strip drywall from a house because they're constantly needing calcium.
How much do you pet these insects?
Every single animal I have, I bring them out on a daily basis. I get a lot of joy from them. I love doing videos of the animals on my Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat—there's a lot of people who like to see these creatures. I think, in a way, seeing a young woman interact with them is more intriguing and less scary than seeing a guy.
What's been the response when you tell people you own these insects?
Society doesn't like people touching these animals, especially women! It's almost acceptable for men, but for a woman to do it—my goodness, people have the biggest issue with it. I would love to encourage more women out there to be entomologists and study insects and really represent us as a gender in a male-dominated industry. If a man studies snakes, he's automatically badass, but if a woman does it [with reptiles and insects], she's unhinged or in need of a man in her life. That's immediately what people jump to. But these animals give me true enjoyment in their own way. I find them fascinating—more fascinating than a lot of people out there!
Do your insects have personality traits at all?
Yeah! Some of them have more personality than others. Shrek, who is my biggest snail, is always happy to come out. The second you wet your hand and pick him or her up—they're actually hermaphrodites, so they're girls and boys at the same time—they're straight out on my hand. Delilah is a lot more shy and spends more time burrowed under the soil. Beans is much more outgoing than Rice; she just wants to eat and sleep the whole time. Beans is always on the go. If he's not eating, he's trying to mate with her and getting rejected. It's a tough life—she's not particularly interested in him.
When did you start making these videos?
I filmed one of them in January after I had a miscarriage. I was really depressed—I had nothing I really wanted to do to get me out of the house. The only thing that was keeping me going was getting up and taking care of my animals. With animals, you cannot mope and lie around in bed. You have to get up, you have to feed them, you have to take them outside. That was the only thing that got me through it at the time. I made a video of Rice and Beans… It took me a couple of months to get the courage to upload it. But it came to a point where I was like, "I just don't care. This is what I love. If people aren't on board with that, that's fine. But what if there's people out there who would be interested and do want to learn? It's worth doing it for them."
What would your advice be to people who are looking to get insects as pets?
You should definitely do your research. Go to an exotic pet shop and ask them for help with trying to pick these animals up for the first time. It's one thing to think you want an animal, but the reality is it might not work for your lifestyle. You might even find that you go in for one animal and go out with another that's way more suitable. There's something out there for everyone!