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

Apr 24, 2012
Originally published on April 24, 2012 4:49 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.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If you're the kind of person who squirms at the sight of a bug, be glad this next story is on the radio. It's about a neighborhood pet shop in Tucson, which claims to be the country's only retail pet shop devoted to insects. We can't verify that claim but we can tell you when NPR's Ted Robbins visited it, the place was hopping.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: No matter how long you've been gone or how late you come home, you're dog is happy to see you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOG)

ROBBINS: I don't think you could say the same thing about a pet cockroach. In fact, I'm pretty sure this Madagascar hissing cockroach is not happy it's been picked up, but as you can hear from the opening day crowd at Ken the Bug Guy's Pet Store, plenty of people think insects make great pets.

ANDREW OLSON: Well, I love bugs and I love looking for them in nature. I love watching my bugs at home, so I'm a dyed-in-the-wool bug nerd, for sure.

ROBBINS: Andrew Olson says he and his brother have about 150 pet bugs. We're not talking the traditional ant farm, which the store does sell, by the way. We're talking tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions and those hissing cockroaches.

KEN MACNEIL: If we can get something, we get it.

ROBBINS: As long as it's legal, says Ken the Bug Guy.

MACNEIL: Right now, I've got some snails out back. I'm waiting for the USDA to come by and take a look at them. I want to make sure that we can sell them before I do.

ROBBINS: Ken MacNeil turned his own lifelong love of insects into a thriving online business. Then he decided he wanted an old-fashioned pet store, too, so he opened this small shop in midtown Tucson with big, black bugs painted on the walls and small tanks and cages everywhere.

Tarantulas are his most popular item.

MACNEIL: There's a huge tarantula hobby. People are always looking for different kinds. There's really rare ones that run up to $700 if you get a big female and then there's the cheaper ones for people that are just getting into the hobby that are usually from $5 to $10.

ROBBINS: 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. They only eat once a week or so.

MACNEIL: Usually, you just throw a cricket in there, a little bit of water and that's it.

ROBBINS: In fact, Ken the Bug Guy has 10,000 bugs in inventory in the back, but he only needs two employees.

Customer Alisha Nichols says she has a dozen tarantulas at home in tanks, along with a cat which loves to stare at the spiders and paw at the crickets she keeps as spider food. Nichols says she finds the tarantulas soothing.

ALISHA NICHOLS: I like to meditate with tarantulas. It's almost like having a Zen garden, just working with their plants, making the little tank that they have as beautiful as possible.

ROBBINS: On the other hand, a dog licks you, a cat rubs up against you. An insect? Well, you don't want to cuddle with that deathstalker scorpion. It can kill you. Most tarantulas tolerate being held. They'll crawl up your arm, but they're not exactly responsive. Andrew Olson says insects are kind of biological robots. That's what he likes about them.

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

ROBBINS: And the bugs couldn't care less if they're pets, so there you go. But a tarantula can live 20 to 30 years, so it still seems like it'd become a member of the family, albeit an aloof member of the family.

Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.