The perfect low maintenance pet

They may not be able to catch mice or play fetch, but stick insects can do amazing tricks

Is there such a thing as the perfect pet? A molecular geneticist at the University of Alberta thinks so. John Locke’s top pick doesn’t catch mice or fetch a ball but it does other cool stuff, according to his website Stick Insect: the Perfect Pet. Citing a 1930s experiment, Locke writes that “Franken-stickie” can be “decapitated and upon replacement of the head, the epidermis and gut will grow together again and rejoin the head to the body.”

“They’re just so impressive,” Locke said from his campus office where he’s busy fielding questions from inquisitive gardeners, mostly in the U.K. and the southern U.S. People find stick insects camouflaged as twigs and leaves, and send pictures, asking, “Will it hurt me and does it have a stinger?”

The Indian stick insect is Locke’s specialty and, unlike other sticks, it doesn’t sting, squirt smelly liquids or temporarily blind its attackers. He first acquired them as low maintenance entertainment for his children about a decade ago. “They’re bigger than mice in some cases. You change their food once or twice a week. They’re not like cockroaches that scurry all over the place. They just sort of walk along and that reduces the ‘willy’ factor.”

Plus, “you can keep these insects and not have to explain sexual reproduction to your children,” he laughs. Female sticks lay fertilized eggs in a process known as parthenogenesis. In 10 years, Locke’s never seen a male stick insect. “Yes, no males required,” he confirms. “You’ve got one, then you’ve got a hundred, then you’ve got a thousand. You have to cull the herd.”

Population explosion is a predicament pet-sitter Cookie Taylor didn’t count on when she answered an Internet ad four years ago and came away with “a couple” of the bugs. She tried naming them Sticklette, Sticky, Stickler. “But they just don’t stop laying eggs,” she said. “How do you tell them apart? Put a little collar on each of them?”

On a sunny afternoon just outside Victoria, Cookie sets her terrarium on a patio table, lifts the lid, and drops her hand down to a leafy blackberry branch. “See,” she says. She leans in and blows on the leaves like she’s a gust of wind. “She’s dancing. Want to hold one?”

Lately, Cookie’s overnight dog-sitting service is in such high demand she’s had to put her bugs in the care of her seven-year-old nephew. “But he’s not paying attention”—not cleaning the cage or culling the herd, she says. So she’s started selling them online. “Last week, I sold four.” Not just to anyone, though. She’s heard escapees are invasive and could “take over the country.” “I quiz people. I ask 10 questions. I say ‘What kind of housing are you going to use?’ ” When a lady called saying she planned to put them in her garden, Cookie thought to herself, “You’re not getting any because you obviously don’t know anything.”

“Oh, there’s a baby one right there,” Cookie says, pointing at what looks like a bit of brown thread clinging to the underside of the mesh lid. She puts the lid down on the table.

In the U.K., bug enthusiast Derek Patterson moderates Sticktalk, the largest of several stick insect fan sites. Brits are such passionate stick collectors, Locke says he wouldn’t be surprised if they held “walking stick shows like dog shows.” “There are plenty of conventions and meets,” confirms Patterson, citing London’s Jungle Nymph weigh-in that crowns the heaviest stick insect.

In an email before agreeing to talk, Patterson writes, “I think on Sticktalk we’re all aware that an interest in stick insects is sometimes considered a little nerdy. I would ask that any article about us doesn’t portray us as TOO weird or as social misfits.” On the phone, he softens. “I don’t know. Maybe we are weird. Maybe we are social misfits a little bit.”

This week on Sticktalk, a member writes that he is “very interested in the photograph of a two-headed stick insect . . . It begs the question whether twins occur in the insect world.” He goes on to share another oddity: “Many years ago my favourite female lost her left antenna during adulthood. After her final skin shed she emerged with a miniature leg on her head! I wonder if any other group members have seen the same phenomena?”

Meanwhile back in Victoria, panic arises when Cookie notices the baby is missing. She checks her lap, then for a few dreadful moments stares hopelessly down at the grass around the table. Phew. There it is. It’s climbing the outside of the terrarium. “Oh, you little fart,” she says. She marches it with her finger up over the edge. “Go back to your cage.” She clamps the lid down.

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