Going to an Insect Petting Zoo: The Greatest Mistake of My Life

This week, Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum played host to a "harmless" collection of hissing cockroaches, 17-inch millipedes, and a feisty tarantula. Foolishly, I went.

by Gabby Bess
Jul 22 2016, 3:50pm

Photos by the author

The movement of insects is always described in unsavory words: crawl, scuttle, slither, wriggle. The appearance of insects is always described as unsettling: They are some of the oldest things on this planet, and they look like it. They look like the products of early experiments in animal body shapes from a time when the Earth was still trying things out, trying to determine how many legs is simply too many legs. Further, bugs are simply bad. During the day, we must fear them stinging us, biting us, and walking or flying casually around our spaces uninvited. During the night, it's worse; we can't see what they're up to while we're sleeping, which probably includes skittering into our mouths or hatching eggs in our ears. And those are just the common ones, the spiders and fruit flies and mosquitos that create a daily menace on our mental health. Bees, I guess, are fine (because of the environment), but bed bugs, and insects far more disturbing, are a whole different level of psychological terror.

Earlier this week, at Brooklyn's most unusual exhibition space, the Morbid Anatomy Museum, they had those next-level menaces on display, along with reptiles, amphibians, and a crab, for an unusually themed petting zoo.

Read more: Death in the House of Wax

In the museum's darkened basement, a man dressed like a magician unveiled his table of wares: a large plastic bin filled with various beetles and Madagascar hissing roaches; a furry tarantula that looked way too much like a mammal; rats that seemed adorable by comparison; a genuinely cute leopard gecko and horned lizard; an eel; some strange bug with legs like wings that I can't name; and the crab, which was too fast to be let out of its container. (I tried later, and it scurried across the table with its outsized pinchers waving menacingly, causing a brief scare. I did not get in trouble.)

The mysterious insect magician introduced himself as Aaron Rodriguez. "I like to collect different animals—like reptiles, insects, and spiders—then show them off to other people," he explained. Rodriguez said he has been taking his traveling show of tiny beasts on the road for about a year. "I think one message that I like to impart is to overcome the unknown and uncomfortable feeling with things that we don't understand and things that we're afraid of," he continued. "I think once you learn about things you can become less afraid of them and overcome your initial gut reaction. In the long run, you can extend that to other things as well. I think there's a blanket of xenophobia that keeps us from understanding things that we aren't familiar with." With that moral implication, he invited everyone in the room to have at it: "Touch anything," he advised. "They're all harmless."

There's a blanket of xenophobia that keeps us from understanding things that we aren't familiar with.

Gazing across the platform of horrors, I knew immediately that I was not going to be touching any of the bugs, regardless of whatever empathetic powers I might gain in the process. Intellectually, I've always understood why Buddhist monks sweep the ground beneath their feet before they walk on it, moving the tiny creatures that might be blithely existing there out of the way—respecting everything equally is a nice idea. But realistically, it has never seemed worth the trouble. While everything in our ecosystem certainly plays an important role (yes, even cockroaches), bugs are prolific breeders with short lifespans, anyway. The beetles here couldn't even stop humping each other long enough for someone to pick them up! The lizards, however, I liked, and I schemed to monopolize their tiny bodies in my palm.

Around me were a mix of onlookers doing their own scheming, squealing, and overcoming. There were people who clearly loved bugs; then there were varying degrees of haters like me. "My heart is, like, jumping out of my chest," the woman in the room who seemed the most afraid confided to me.

"I have a chameleon, so I feed a lot of these bugs to him," I said, gesturing to the hornworms and superworms, which are technically not worms but moth larvae and beetle larvae. "But I scoop them into a jar with a spoon. I try not to have direct contact with them." She didn't seem to really care.

"I have a serious fear, and I'm trying to..." she started saying, but she was cut off by the appearance of a 17-inch African millipede. "Oh. My. God. I'm having troubled breathing."

Another woman who was either brave or just unfortunate enough to be standing close to Rodriguez as he coaxed the giant thing out of its box volunteered to hold it. (Rodriguez referred to each animal with the feminine pronoun "she," but I find this inappropriate.) As it snaked it's way from her hands up her arm, she began to smile and laugh uncontrollably; in her eyes you could see that her worst nightmare was manifesting itself in reality. After some time, I reached out to touch some of the millipede's legs while it was being passed to another person. They felt like feathers, which wasn't bad, though when I finally gathered the courage to pick the small monster up in earnest someone mentioned that it had given them a rash. I reconsidered.

An African millipede (left) and a hornworm (right)

I moved to the bin with the beetles and cockroaches. The beetles were still fucking, so I didn't want to disturb them, but the roaches actually looked pretty docile. I started stroking one on its back, feeling the ridges on its exoskeleton underneath my finger. It was kind of cool; I decided to pick one up.

That was not as cool!

My finger didn't have a rash, but it was fundamentally changed.

I screamed the entire time it sat awkwardly on my hand, and long after I put it down the skin on my pinky felt altered. My finger didn't have a rash, but it was fundamentally changed.

So far nothing about this was winning me over to Team Insect. But then I saw the tarantula. It was intimidating at first glance, with a substantial body from which sprouted many substantial hairy legs. But when I watched people pick it up, it started to appear sweet, almost dog-like. Apparently it had that effect on everyone: "It's not that bad!" many people agreed as it crawled up their bodies.

The bad tarantula

Even the woman with the preternatural fear of everything in the room was won over. She held out her hands expectantly as she waited for the tarantula to scoot its way onto her from someone's arm. Immediately it started...shitting? Peeing? Spinning a web? A long, thin, mucous-y trail started forming out from under it. "Oh," she said, concerned but not deterred. "She's really cute," she cooed.

But that assessment was premature. "Oh my God," the woman said. "She's biting me. I think she's biting me." The woman shook the tarantula off of her hand to reveal a tiny spot of blood from where it has pierced her skin with its teeth. She ran up to Rodriguez.

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"I think the tarantula just bit me," she said. "It's fine, but I just wanted to let you know." She said this very apologetically, as if she was the one who had bitten the tarantula.

"Really?" he said as he rushed over to put the furry lump back in its box. "She's never done that before. I swear she's never done that before."

As I watched the scene, I decided that I had had enough of the petting zoo experience. Also, my pinky still felt weird, and I didn't want to risk any further trauma. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands, less convinced than ever that close encounters with bugs could lead to anything other than a mild skin irritation, at best, and slipped out the door. I'm not quite sure what I'll do when the irony of our collective disregard for the tiny creatures leaves us with crickets as our sole source of protein.

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