Life in the Bughouse

The Insectarium's keepers are mad about their charges

Tim O'Sullivan stops the cart at one of the exhibits. He takes a key and opens the lid on a terrarium containing a colony of live crickets. Reaching in, he exchanges their wilting produce for fresh stuff and -- spritz, spritz -- mists them with a sprayer. Suddenly they perk up, not unlike picnickers caught in an unexpected downpour. "These animals may actually prefer slightly rotted produce," says O'Sullivan, keeper of these tiny, twittering creatures, "but the guidelines say to replace food every day and mist every day."

The crickets, in O'Sullivan's parlance, are "veggie-eaters." The St. Louis Zoo's Monsanto Insectarium has, in terms of live specimens, way more veggie-eaters than carnivores. If they could count their blessings, these pampered on-display crickets certainly would, because, 10 feet away, in an adjacent room, is another container filled with brethren crickets whose hapless fortune is to get fed to the carnivores -- the centipedes, the scorpions, the praying mantises.

Actually, says O'Sullivan, "Insectarium" is a bit of a misnomer. "The Partula snails aren't insects, and neither are the tarantulas or the banana slugs. It probably should be called Invertebrate World." Whatever the designation, it is a relatively new concept in the zoo world. Including this charming facility, there are only five zoo-attached invertebrate houses in the U.S. Brimming with informative displays and enough live specimens to occupy a small patch of rainforest, the facility opened in May 2000 and was started on the premise that most people would appreciate -- even like -- bugs, if only they knew more about them. O'Sullivan, for one, is a tireless champion of bugs and buglike creatures.

Zookeeper Tim O'Sullivan with an Australian walking stick
Sarah Carmody
Zookeeper Tim O'Sullivan with an Australian walking stick
Zookeeper Tim O'Sullivan with an Australian walking stick
Sarah Carmody
Zookeeper Tim O'Sullivan with an Australian walking stick

"Either you know nothing about them at all," says the ponytailed, salt-and-pepper-bearded keeper, "or you stomp on them the minute you see them. Humans and insects coexist very closely, and yet most of us don't appreciate the largest group of animals. You take the entire animal kingdom -- 95 percent are invertebrates. The fact is, we would not exist without insects. The food chain would dry up. Honeybees alone pollinate plants that translate to billions of dollars in food each year."

O'Sullivan wheels the food cart past a color photo of an Indonesian girl munching on a tarantula. It looks crunchy, as though it's been cooked. An exotic version of chocolate-covered ants, that American confection found in novelty stores? The tarantula isn't poisonous, only venomous, he explains. "People can eat almost anything venomous," he offers. "And, in some parts of the world, they do."

He stops at the hissing-cockroach display. Spritz, spritz. The 3-inch-long Madagascar natives don't just hiss at random. Entomologists have determined that they hiss for perfectly good reasons: A hiss might say, 'Leave her alone, she's mine!' to other randy roaches, or it might broadcast a danger alert. Obligingly, O'Sullivan gently pokes one until it makes a sound like telephone static. In another glass enclosure, the giant prickly stick insect, looking like a desiccated leaf hanging from a twig, is, by O'Sullivan's assessment, "mild-mannered." This is not an apt description for the bullet-ant colony -- big, shiny black ants collected by a keeper on a trip to Peru. They are so called because, says O'Sullivan, "if one stings you, it feels like being shot by a bullet."

He passes over a static-pin beetle display. No feeding or misting needed there. That's one of the problems with an insect zoo, he explains. Certain species don't live long as adults but spend most of their lives in the larval stage, so it's hard to keep the displays filled with adult live specimens, which, after all, are far more interesting than burrowing grubs. The solution, he says, is to pin-mount the adults in lifelike poses. Most people don't even realize they are looking at dead bugs.

O'Sullivan's boss, curator of invertebrates Jane Stevens, holds a master's degree in entomology. O'Sullivan's experience with animals is nearly all practical. He attended St. Louis Community College-Meramec, hoping to become a veterinarian. "They had a work-study program," he recalls. "It was either the zoo or the Humane Society. I couldn't see myself euthanizing dogs and cats, so I chose the zoo." Ultimately he left college, putting aside the veterinary aspirations to don the khaki uniform of a zookeeper. He doesn't regret the decision: "The keeper sees the animals at their best. The vet sees them at their worst. As a keeper, you develop a relationship with the animals. You walk in the building, they walk up to you. They know you -- you're the guy with the treats. Some, like the big cats, want to be petted. You get some kind of a reaction. The vet walks in, they're skittish right off. They're thinking: 'He's going to do something to me that I don't like.'"

O'Sullivan, 44, and his wife live in nearby Dogtown and have two dogs, two cats and two rats. The preponderance of his 20 years with the zoo has been spent as an elephant keeper, where, in separate incidents, he sustained two ruptured discs handling pachyderm provisions and simply being around the huge animals. "I came from a place where I could get squished to a place where I can squish," he likes to joke. At least the bug house offers more variety: "With elephants, you get to know two species, the Indian and the African. Here, there are over 100 species. I did not have a great deal of knowledge about insects before starting here, and what I have discovered is that the information on insects is overwhelming. So I take it in chunks. I say, 'OK, now I'm going to learn about butterflies,' and I study the butterflies. I go to bees, then scorpions. I've yet to come across an insect that has not fascinated me by its behavior."

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