Children are fascinated by insects. Most of us grow out of wanting to catch a firefly and keep it in a jar, but for those who never do, that urge can lead in surprising directions.
Roaches actually make good pets, says Orin McMonigle, author of more than a dozen books on keeping pet insects. McMonigle, who produces a magazine for hobbyists and even has a species of roach named after him, is used to skeptics. He doesn’t like vermin scurrying about his kitchen any more than you do, but, he explains, not all cockroaches are created equal.
“I do not like pest cockroaches, I do not like mosquitoes, I do not like lice, I do not like German cockroaches. I just like the neat ones,” says McMonigle, who in fact used to be a licensed pest-control operator. “By knowing the difference, I’m able to appreciate the neat ones.”
The most common pet roach is the hissing cockroach, 2 to 3 inches long. Its name comes from the sound it makes when disturbed, although it may lose that habit when it gets used to being handled. Hissers make a good display not only due to their size, but also because they don’t instinctively hide.
If one were to escape, McMonigle says, the only danger would be to the insect itself. Hissing cockroaches can’t survive on their own in the typical home, where the temperature and humidity are unsuitable and they can’t find food.
“If you let a thousand hissers loose in your house, they’re not going to do anything,” he says. “There’s over 4,000 species of roaches, and only about 25 are classified as pests, and only five of those are any good at it.”
A parallel might be to an escape by guinea pigs, he says: Just because they’re related to mice doesn’t mean they can take up residence in your walls and start breeding.
If you’re still not convinced about roaches, McMonigle notes that their closest relative is an insect that many people love: the praying mantis.
Yen Saw of Katy, Texas, has been keeping mantises for nearly 10 years, since his son got interested in them. “But then he conveniently left the hard work to me and I got hooked,” Saw says.
With insects, you can breed many generations in a limited space and over a short time. And unlike more conventional pets, they don’t just get larger as they grow, but metamorphose through several forms.
“I love the process of seeing them growing,” Saw says.
Owners of some kinds of insects can also observe a natural behavior that might be too gruesome with other pets: predation.
Mantises, despite their charm, are hunters, and have no mercy even on their own relatives. When asked how many mantises he has, Saw laughs and says, “The number keeps changing because praying mantises, as you know, they eat each other.”
Since hundreds hatch at a time, this behavior helps keep the size of a collection manageable. It’s also one of the insect’s claims to fame: The female has a habit of eating the male’s head after mating, although the frequency of that has been exaggerated, Saw says. He’s watched mantises breed many times, and says, “The males are really careful trying not to lose their heads.”