We are listening to Marty Reames wheeze a little as he pulls a sealed, 20-gallon fish tank off a high shelf in a back room of Underground Reptiles in Deerfield Beach. Marty is not the only thing making a sound. The tank is, too. It sounds like rain. But it's not rain. It's legs.
As he opens the lid, Marty notes that "once a female cockroach has mated, it's pregnant for life," and inside are revealed "tens of thousands" of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Giant cockroaches. Tiny cockroaches. Healthy, active, curious cockroaches. Hissing cockroaches.
He says the store only sells males so they don't break free and breed. Everyone present looks at each other. We are all thinking the same thing: "That's what they said in Jurassic Park." Marty puts his hand in the tank, and the cockroaches crawl all over it like children latching onto their absentee father returned from a road trip. If he drops that tank, which looks very possible, the room would be alive with them, and so would I. The microscopic amount of bravery I had evaporates as I back away.
"Be careful," says Marty. "You're backing right into my rattlesnakes." I turn around to see one coiled up and staring at me through Tupperware, the patented burping mechanism of which is, at this moment, locking in death. I back out the doorway and into a room full of vats full of "rat pups" and a bin full of maggoty-looking worms. Who would have dreamed a circle of hell would be found in a strip mall in Deerfield?
It's my own fault, really, that I find myself backing away from cockroaches into rattlesnakes. We had received a news release from the Truly Nolen pest-control company stating that exotic insects were becoming trendy as pets. Despite my well-documented fear of all crawling things (including babies and people who are injured), I volunteered that it was my duty as a finder of interesting things to seek out the most vile and disgusting popular bugs available, and the Truly Nolen people pointed me toward the store in Deerfield Beach.
Now, you know and I know that exotic pests are not pole-vaulting past Ricky Martin on the list of desirable creatures any time soon, so really it was just an excuse to hit the road and see some bugs and look like I was nobly doing my journalistic duty in the process.
This, for the record, is the last time I even try to look noble.
Marty, of course, has not noticed any tidal upsurge in bugs as pets. "We have steady customers we've had for years that are strictly into bugs," like the emperor scorpion the size of a clothespin that is now running up his hand. Marty has been bitten so often ("It's not that bad," he says) that it doesn't bother him. Scorpions can be de-poisoned by clipping the ends off their tails, which eventually grow back. Spiders, which the shop is almost literally crawling with, aren't so easy. "Spiders cannot be defanged because their venom is part of their digestive system," Marty says. Despite this, they're popular pets.
We see why they are so popular when Marty attempts to transfer a sunburst baboon spider from one cage to another. This species is particularly aggressive and poisonous. And, as we soon find out, fast. It lurches out of the cage and, while being no bigger than a cigarette lighter, causes five normal-sized human beings to scatter like sparks off a firework.
Don't fear the creeper
Marty eventually corrals the thing into a cage with the aid of a helper and a steel rod, at which point the kinkajou (something kind of like a lemur) breaks free of its leash and decides to hop around the store. Meanwhile, the fruit bats, Boris and Vincenza (they aren't for sale, as the FDA has declared fruit bats to be "vectors of rabies," according to Marty), have left the top of their cage to fly around for a while. From the hissing cockroaches to the airborne bats, an afternoon at the pet store is starting to become more exciting than an episode of "ER."
Exotic pets, we decide, are popular because they provide the same level of high drama and excitement that normal people encounter among other human beings, only they don't talk back and you can get them to go where you want with a steel rod. There are, of course, some people you could say the same about, but you don't really want to know them.
We left the store with a Vietnamese walking stick, an insect whose whole purpose in life is to avoid being seen, kind of a refreshing change from the attention-seeking pains in the ass one comes across on a daily basis. He's so calm, so aloof, so passive. It's a delightful change. It may even become trendy.