Specially designed bamboo insect cages.
Pets are part of the family for nearly 62% of Americans. According to a recent pet census, a whopping 69.9 million dogs are kept as pets in the United States. And get this: There are even more cats – 74.1 million of them. That seems like a lot of dogs and cats. U.S. pet ownership drops significantly after those two big groups – 8.3 million birds and 4.8 million horses. Statistics were not available for pet fish, probably because they are so difficult to count – always swimming around or hiding in the weeds, so they were lumped in a group called “exotic pets,” which includes all reptiles and most everything else, even insects.
The term exotic is generally used to describe something “foreign,” "different," or "unusual." A precise definition of exotic pets is somewhat open to interpretation, but most every pet that is not a dog, cat or domesticated livestock is considered part of this group. For example, pets such as rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs are hardly unusual but are still lumped in the exotic pet category. These, as well as pets such as birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even fish, are sold in pet stores as exotic pets.
Both federal and state governments put tight regulations on which exotic pets can and can’t be imported. Banned pets are always illegal, and special permits to transport or own certain other exotic pets must be obtained prior to adopting them. Animals that are endangered or protected or those that may pose a threat in the form of disease transmission or physical injury are considered exotic and come with a list of restrictions.
I am often asked whether any insects are illegal to keep as pets. Unless they are specifically listed on the USDA Registered Plant Pest List (those posing a significant threat to agriculture) or the Threatened/Endangered Species List (those in danger of going extinct), keeping insects as pests is not prohibited by law. Since most people will never encounter an insect from either of those two lists, you are free to capture any insect you find and keep it as a pet.
In other parts of the world, insects are often kept as household pets. In China and Japan, singing crickets and katydids are as commonly kept as dogs and cats are in the United States. Their owners claim that there is even some practical value in having such insects as pets. Night-singing crickets are said to warn of intruders, because the crickets suddenly stop singing when disturbed by other noises. This advantage seems a bit dubious for me because cricket chirping all night would tend to keep me awake and I would finally fall asleep when they quit, which would be the precise time home invaders were present, so I am not convinced that value in this regard is not overestimated. In America, this role has been taken by watchdogs and … we are still trying to figure out a practical value for cats.
Still, there are other advantages of choosing insects as pets, and we should carefully examine and compare them in an effort to be all-inclusive and politically fair when selecting the perfect pet.
Let’s consider the following 10 advantages for keeping pet insects as compared to keeping dogs, cats or horses.
- Insects are not difficult or expensive to obtain. Pet stores sell a few insect pets, but it is very simple to obtain a great insect pet from your backyard. During the spring and summer, caterpillars can be found that turn into butterflies, making them a two-for-one pet, just like transformer toys. Keep your eyes open in the fall for a walking stick, a praying mantid, or a particularly large beetle.
- The most obvious advantage is the space required for keeping insects. They do not require a kennel, a barn or a stall to keep them contained. A quart jar with a small amount of soil in the bottom will do just fine. Just try to imitate their natural environment with the proper humidity, temperature, and food. Soon they will become full-fledged members of the family and will require names. When that happens, upgrading to a glass aquarium will always be appreciated by your six-legged little friends. In any case, glass jar or aquarium, they are not going to be a burden – even in a tiny apartment.
- Insect pets are easily maintained. Food requirements are minimal, and that too is available in the backyard. Simply note what the insect was feeding on when captured and, as needed, continue to provide those same leaves or fruits to its cage. A moist cotton ball in the cage will provide all the water that insect pets need. Mantids are an exception. They are predators, and thus need to be provided live prey, but just about any living insect you can capture and place in their cage will be readily accepted. They get all the water they need from their “dinner guests.”
- As pets, insects are universally interesting and always a conversation starter. They make themselves available for handling or showing off to friends or siblings, 24/7. And their behavior is never bad. Insect pets seldom bite or scratch or growl or kick and they don’t make a mess or chew on shoes. It is unlikely that an insect pet owner will ever wonder if they are worth their trouble. Admittedly, they are not going to learn to perform tricks like a dog can, but they are at least on par with a cat. Insect pets are scientifically educational. Watching a mantid feed or mate is an event never to be forgotten. Successfully rearing a caterpillar through pupation until it emerges as a beautiful butterfly or moth is a transformational process called metamorphosis that will also change people’s lives. Catching lightning beetles for pets is an experience that will always be remembered.
- Insects are content. Unlike dogs that constantly beg for more food and more attention, and fussy cats that want better food and higher-class attention, insects are happy with what you give them. And trustworthy. You need not look over your shoulder every second should you need to leave the table or leave them at home for a period.
- Pet-sitting for insects is a no-brainer: They do not require it. No arguing about who will take them for a walk, who will let them out each morning to do their duty, no monitoring cameras, special rooms, pillows, balls or chew toys are needed. Insect pets are happy with whatever small stick or rock or leaf that you might add to their cage.
- Cleaning up after pet insects might be their biggest advantage of all. Compare that chore with what is required for dogs, cats or horses. No need for bags, litter boxes or shovels. Everything that comes out of an insect is already packaged, small, dry and completely odorless.
- Children, and sometimes adults, eventually tire of pet ownership. The novelty of a cute puppy or kitten wears off, and then what? With insects, their release back into nature can be a beautiful and cherished spiritual experience. Insects can provide this. Not so much with other pets.
- Pet insect replacement is also a minor issue. Pet store owners tell me that it is fairly routine that a distraught parent or a pet sitter shows up with a small box in which an expired, beloved family bird, gerbil or even fish is deposited. “Do you have a live one that looks exactly like this? I need it right now before the owners return from their vacation or before Johnny gets home from school.” With insects, making the secret swap is a cinch. As long as you get the species right; all adult forms look and act exactly the same. Nobody can tell the difference.
- Finally, all pets die. The sad part of pet ownership is that we usually outlive them, and it is always sad to say farewell to any pet, even an insect, especially if it has been given a name and become part of the family. But insects, even in death, are easily cared for. No formal funeral, cremation, burial or even “last flushing rights surrounding a porcelain throne” are necessary. Just take the expired insect to any 4-H entomology kid down the street and ask them to “prepare” it. It will be returned pinned in a semi-lifelike form to a block of Styrofoam, which then can be placed in a prominent location on your mantel and will bring back joyful memories every time you see it.
To help measure the value of Dr. Tim’s Spineless Wonders column I would appreciate your response to the following 3 minute Qualtrics survey (https://purdue.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_80lLjR1IqqFleXr). Thank you in advance.