Petting zoos usually give people a chance to interact with animals that they already think are cute, like baby goats.
So when Andrine Shufran shows up to U.S. state fairs with a menagerie of tarantulas, cockroaches, and scorpions, it tends to freak people out.
Some people “come up to the table and scream—like, literally scream—and run away,” she says.
The fact that these critters make people nervous is actually the reason that Shufran, an entomologist at the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension, decided to start her traveling Insect Adventure petting zoo. Visitors to the petting zoo at its home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, or the many places it travels to around the state get a chance to hold the animals that often make them squirm.
“Even though [arthropods are] the largest group of animals on Earth, it is also the least understood,” says Shufran.
It’s the same sentiment that led Aaron Rodriques, a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at Purdue University, to start holding petting zoos with insects, arachnids, and other creatures at places like Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum (the next one is September 12).
Giving people an opportunity to interact with arthropods like cockroaches and spiders is not only a good way to introduce them to the fascinating creatures, it’s also a way to ease their fears, he says.
Can It Hurt Me?
One common question, Rodriques says, is “Is it poisonous?”
“The answer is either ‘no’ or ‘if you eat it,’” says Rodriques.
That’s because “poisonous” actually refers to something that would only hurt you if you swallowed it. Rodriques has a few species in his collection that people shouldn’t eat, like the eastern lubber grasshopper or the giant African millipede (they contain a range of chemicals that can be harmful, including cyanide).
But most insects, and all spiders, are both safe to eat and a good source of protein.
When people ask whether a spider is poisonous, what they often really mean is, “Is it venomous?”
Although all spiders are venomous, says Shufran, most spiders’ venom has little to no effect on humans. Only two U.S. spiders have venom that can cause major medical problems: the black widow and the brown recluse.
In fact, Shufran thinks the general public is scared of the wrong critters: Cockroaches and spiders are far less dangerous than some species of ticks and mosquitoes, which can carry serious diseases.
“When it comes to … ticks and mosquitos, run for your life,” quips Shufran.
Citizens of the Earth
When people learn that a certain insect or spider can’t hurt them, their fears usually dissipate.
Ron Wagler, an associate professor of science education at the University of Texas at El Paso, has also observed this phenomenon when he exposes people to arthropods.
Wagler teaches students who are studying to be teachers, and he hopes that exposing them to insects and spiders in the lab will motivate them to use these animals in their own classrooms.
“As citizens of the Earth, I think there should be a certain level of scientific literacy about the way ecosystems work,” he says.
For instance, many arthropods help decompose dead organic matter and loosen soil so that plants can grow, helping humans breathe. They’re so essential to our planet, Wagler says, that if they went extinct so would we.