Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Blattidae in the Park

By Wayne Alan Brenner

MAY 3, 1999:  With God as my witness, Austin, Texas, I swear I didn't mean to aid or abet the destruction of your delicate ecological balance. If the triple-generation family of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches that my daughter and I innocently unleashed in one of your fine parks eventually clobbers all competing species and puts a sort of biopathic stranglehold on the local environment, well, I apologize. Such was not our intent. Really -- I mean it.

Perhaps I should explain.

I'd just moved into a studio apartment in the Clarksville neighborhood, see, after a much more spacious living-together situation with one of your fine citizens fizzled out like a can of whipped cream after some cretin's sucked out all the nitrous oxide. A studio apartment, mind you. Not a one-bedroom -- a one-room, with only a bathroom and what they call a kitchenette attached. Not nearly enough space for me and a pet of some kind. And I really needed, right about then, a pet of some kind.

Having had my heart broken as if it were a nose on the receiving end of Evander Holyfield's naked fist, I was pretty damn morose. Having found myself unhappily uncoupled, I was pretty damn lonely. And sufficient human intimacy was not, as far as I could see, forthcoming. So, in my vague yet aching malaise, I decided to try -- platonically, of course -- the nonhuman variety.

But -- which one?

Dogs were out of the question. Only the smallest breeds of canine would've been less than an imposition; and the smallest breeds of canine are not breeds I have any good feelings about. The feelings I do have about them, in fact, can be summed up thus: If it yips, it must die. So, no dogs.

Cats were an option. I've always been what folks call a cat person. But it occurred to me that a cat, like a dog, would require a certain amount of care. Not as much general attention, of course, but regular feeding and grooming and changing of the, uh, cat box. So I decided to pass on felines.

What I really wanted, I discovered, in a sudden and almost blinding burst of self-actualization, was a Low-Maintenance Sort of Pet. But which Low-Maintenance Sort of Pet?

Mammals were immediately disqualified; when you're the kind of lazy that I aspire toward, any mammal is High-Maintenance. And I didn't want fish, either, since they function more as kinetic wallpaper than as pets. Ditto for birds. So, what? Perhaps something reptilian?


illustration by Roy Tompkins

I'd had iguanas and snakes when I was a kid. But I'd developed a low tolerance for iguanas -- always with the climbing and the running and the hiding among the draperies. Snakes, though, were terrific pets: easy to take care of, affectionate in their unthinking way, and hardly ever a problem. Except when, once a month or so, they'd have to, uh, defecate. Snakes don't chew their food, you see; they swallow it whole -- bones and fur and all. Which may be why their digestive fluids are so powerful. Which may be why a large portion of snake shit is far too reminiscent of the eating-through-metal bodily fluids of the alien from Alien. Not even to mention the smell. Which isn't something I'd want to deal with, no matter how infrequently, in a studio apartment. And turtles? Well, I have a certain long-standing grudge against turtles -- but that's another story.

So, reptiles? No go.

Which left me, I figured, among the arthropods. Arachnids. Insects.

Bugs, as they say.

Now, I've always loved spiders and their ilk. Jumping spiders, orb weavers, Daddy Long-Legses, all that crowd. A few minutes in the company of a Phiddipus audax, for instance, is a many splendored thing. But those guys don't take very well to domesticity, and they're a bit too small to keep track of. And tarantulas, the popular domestic among the eight-leggers, don't quite thrill me. I don't like the way they pounce, for one thing, and I don't appreciate their bristly pelts, and the idea of something with fangs that big and jaws that powerful actually, for whatever unknowable spidery reason, biting me? And me reacting somehow other than murderously? Forget about it.

Which left me at a loss. And then I remembered the cockroaches. Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, to be precise.

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches -- from the family Blattidae, scientifically speaking: the good side of the family -- are not the nasty skittering German cockroaches that infest the garbagey areas of one's home and can spread all manner of disease and cause understandable revulsion upon first sight. These hissing roaches from Madagascar are flightless, wingless, relatively slow-moving, thicker and wider, about three inches long, with a sort of patent-leather-looking helmet covering their roachy little heads, and possess the ability to hiss -- thus the name -- like an enraged tea kettle when threatened or, experimentally, squeezed a little too hard. Now that sounded promising.

I'd seen the creatures on Letterman. I'd read about them in National Geographic. I'd lived in Africa when I was a kid, and a bug like this would be a sort of harkening back to my (cough-cough) idyllic childhood. And they'd be pets that my five-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother but who visits often, could safely interact with. Also, I knew where I could get some for about four bucks apiece. So Angelica and I went down to a reptiles and exotics store in South Austin, and we bought a pair of these über-roaches. A pair of them, you see. Two males.

Two males.

I named one Archy, after a certain poetic roach from days gone by, and Angelica named one Apta, for whatever unknowable kiddery reason, and we introduced them to their 15-gallon terrarium environment. And it was good. We could take them out and lay with them whenever we wanted, and all that was required to keep them happy was to fill their small water dish once a week and toss them bits of banana peel or orange rind or leftover tabouli every now and then.

And they thrived. The two of them. The two males.

Who swiftly set about producing offspring.

About a month after we got them, our roaches had babies. Approximately 20 babies. Teeny tiny babies. Some of whom escaped because the screened-in top that was tight enough to restrict their much-bigger parents didn't quite restrict them. But most of them stayed in anyway -- because it was a friendly little ecosystem, after all. They stayed in. Yes indeed. And they had babies.

Three months after we'd welcomed Archy and Apta home, we had a glass tank literally overflowing with Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches in various stages of development. And some were escaping, regardless of our efforts with Scotch tape and other adhesives, and some were staying in. And all of them, it seemed, were having more babies.

Well, lemme tell you, it got to be too much. The situation had gone, as if overnight, from Low Maintenance to Extremely High Maintenance. And action needed to be taken. Something Had To Be Done.

I tried giving them away, but had few takers. If you think it's tough getting someone to adopt kittens, you need to try with roaches, and you need to count your blessings, my friend. I was able, eventually, to unload a total of five full-grown roaches on somewhat eccentric friends and acquaintances. Which left me with dozens of the fuckers still at home.

And so, after another day of pondering and considering and consulting with Angelica, it was decided that we'd let them go. All of them. Down among the trees at a local park, the park whose name I don't know but which is referred to by many nearby residents as Dogshit Park.

And so we did. We walked down the next day, walked down in the middle of a beautiful sunny afternoon, stopped among the live oaks surrounding the playground area, upended the aquarium and let those roaches go -- dozens of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches of all sizes crawling to their new life in the park: hiding under leaves, burrowing through the dirt, ascending the nearest trees, free at last, free at last.

Hallelujah.

And that was about two years ago.

So. If you're in your kitchen in the middle of the night, fellow Austinite, if you're up then and getting a snack or a postcoital drink of water or something, and you happen to see yet another cockroach, and it's not your usual type of cockroach ... if it's a bit bigger, say, a bit less skittery ... if it has a patent-leather-looking helmet covering its roachy little head ... and especially if it hisses at you ...

Mea culpa, okay? Mea maxima culpa.


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