After checking out the Natural History Museum’s new dino hall and dinosaur kids’ show this past Sunday, I timidly and somewhat reluctantly entered the insect zoo, where rosy cheeks and sticky hands crowded around tiny enclosures filled with plants. I ripped the Band-Aid off right away and stuck my face up to the glass where fuzzy tarantulas lay unmoving, awaiting their prey. Then I made my way towards the giant stick insects, the almost-cute domino beetles and the ferocious giant African millipede. 

Domino Beetles

As I perused the bugs’ cribs, my heart nearly leapt out of my chest for a cricket, who, upon seeing me approach the enclosure of beetles, promptly crawled towards me and – I swear it – begged with his bulging eyes and wavering antennae to be let out of that inhumane death trap. I never thought I’d feel so much heartache over a cricket, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the image of that poor little creature’s final desperate moments may haunt me for weeks.

Swarming in a sea of people, I burrowed in my introversion and nearly declared my second fear-fighting challenge a bust. I was hesitant to disturb the insect zoo gallery interpreters, and secretly a teeny bit relieved when I realized I wasn’t going to have to hold a bug.

And then my friend Mitch, who has loudly played the role of wedding coordinator, announcement maker and group activities organizer on more occasions than millipedes have legs, asked, “Do you need me to be me?” That’s when I knew I was screwed. This was definitely happening one way or the other, because Mitch is someone who makes things happen.

Of course, his wife Kim is also someone who makes things happen, and she led me sheepishly to the gallery interpreter, starting the chain of events that eventually led me down into the humid basement breeding grounds of the Natural History Museum’s private insect collection. Serenaded by the rhythmic chirping of crickets, Greg and I were led by Leslie Gordon, the museum’s Manager of Vertebrate Live Animal Programs, through the narrow aisles of insect enclosures.

Desert Iron-Clad Beetle

If it weren’t for Leslie’s calm disposition and clear passion for insects, arachnids and myriapods, I’m not sure I would have made it through the experience. She started us off slow by allowing us to peek in at the fascinating leaf insects, giant walking stick insects and meaty tarantulas. Then it was time to man up or drop into fetal position. I bravely chose the former.

We began small. Leslie gingerly picked up a slate grey desert iron-clad beetle about the size of a quarter and let it crawl around her hand. I touched its back, which felt like a rough stone. And then I stuck my hand in there and let it crawl on me. “How does it feel?” Greg asked me from behind the camera. I told him it felt like I was holding an animal, not a bug. Which is, of course, silly, because technically bugs are animals. But what I meant is that I couldn’t feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle; I wasn’t at all feeling squeamish. Being prepped to hold the insect and knowing I was in a controlled situation where it wouldn’t be allowed to do anything but read my palm, I was at ease. It didn’t feel tickly or gross. It just…was.

Giant Spiny Stick Insect

I was then allowed to touch a hissing cockroach, much larger in size than the beetle, and clearly it liked me more than Greg, because it hissed when he touched it. Then we took a trip to Mars, because that’s exactly where the giant spiny stick insect looked like it was from. Sci-fi makeup artists and costume designers must get their ideas from this thing. At least 6 inches long, this alien-like insect had the girth of a broomstick with sturdy antennae, bulging eyes and a variety of rubbery textures across its back. If anything like that ever appeared in my house, I’d most definitely have to check myself into an outpatient facility. But here, as Leslie held the bark it stood on, I was able to stroke its back and simply stare in awe.

After a failed attempt at picking up a threatening black scorpion, we arrived at the creepy crawly creature I was most afraid of…but I’ll save that story for next time. Until then, any guesses as to what scared me the most in that room?

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