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Tue, May 20, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Roach replacing dog as best friend

REUTERS , CANBERRA

Hayley Smithers holds the world's biggest cockroach, an Australian burrowing cockroach, on display in Sydney's zoo yesterday. Workers in Australia's pet industry say the demand for insects as pets has risen in the past five years because of cramped living.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Dog too demanding? Allergic to cats? Then how about coming home to a lovable, giant cockroach?

Workers in Australia's pet industry say the demand for insects as pets has risen in the past five years because of more cramped living -- and so has the number of people befriending cockroaches, with the biggest of the species native to Australia.

"Admittedly they are a bit of an unusual pet, but the kids can play with them without getting hurt and they are very low maintenance," said John Olive, one of the major suppliers of giant cockroaches to the pet market within Australia.

"I'm surprised more people don't want them as pets," he said.

But roach-lovers are not settling for second best and befriending any of the little critters that scuttle around your kitchen at night or the offensive brown things with huge wings that fly in when you open the balcony door in summer.

They want the world's biggest cockroach, the giant burrowing cockroach or rhinoceros cockroach that is native to Australia, and found in the warm, northeastern state of Queensland.

"These really are charming creatures. They're clean, they're not stinky at all and there really is nothing horrible about them except for the name cockroach," Sue Hasenpusch, from another supplier, the Australian Insect Farm, said.

These gigantic cockroaches, officially called Macropanesthia Rhinoceros, grow as big as the palm of a hand, measuring about 80mm and weighing 35g. They are also known to live up to 10 years.

Huge and shiny with spiky legs, they can be kept in a medium-sized tank with 10cm to 12cm of sandy soil at room temperature, surviving on dry eucalyptus or gum tree leaves.

They don't seem to mind handling and some cockroach owners even say their animal hisses softly when stroked.

Animal trainer Steve Austin, who has kept giant cockroaches, said they were quite clever animals, wingless and slow moving.

Within seven days, he managed to train a group of cockroaches to come when they were called, climbing over small obstacles and through a hoop, to reach some food 2m away.

"They certainly won't be greeting you at the door with a newspaper in their mouth like a dog, but they can respond as a pet as much as a fish, coming when called," Austin said.

"They have a certain intelligence and they are getting quite well known as pets now although it is still a new thing," he said.

He brushed aside suggestions these giant cockroaches were dirty in any way or spread disease -- unlike some of their smaller cousins who thrive in sewers and rubbish tips.

"They're no dirtier than a domestic rat or mouse," he said.

Australia is home to about 450 native species of cockroach which are not pests and are mainly bush dwellers, while globally there are an estimated 4,000 species of cockroach.

But there are around six species of pest cockroach in Australia, most of which were introduced from outside the island continent and now plague almost every house.

Fans of giant cockroaches are quick to distance themselves from the household pests and some pet shops rename them litter bugs, rain beetles or macrobugs to escape the cockroach stigma.

The Australian Insect Farm sells "giant litter bug" kits, comprising of an insect house, sand, some food and three young little bugs, for A$71.50 (US$45).

Peter Nobbs, executive officer of Australia's pet welfare group, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said urban living often prevented people from keeping a dog or cat but insects or small reptiles were ideal for life in an apartment.

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