From Madagascar to North Idaho
The Gearlds family takes pet ownership to new levels
Radio talk show personality, product spokesperson, teacher, Internet star, family friend, respected senior citizen, potential longevity world record holder.A pretty decent resume – especially for a cockroach.
George, our Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, is the answer to that seldom-asked question, “Can a giant cockroach from a tropical island off the southeast coast of Africa make it in North Idaho?”
Thanks to a heat rock and some TLC, the answer would seem to be “yes.”
George turned up four years ago in an art supply cabinet in Arizona, an escapee from a big herd of hissers we once kept for lizard chow. The reptiles weren’t wild about cockroaches as gourmet meals, and we gave the bugs away. A year later, George turned up, fully grown to enormous size and discretely living in our house all that time.
We were petless at the time and had some surplus terrariums, so I made a habitat for her, complete with a little house. We named her “George” after a guy I worked for at the time. A guy I didn’t like much. I didn’t know at the time just how attached I would become to that bug.
Two years ago, she rode to Idaho with me in the cab of a Ryder truck. When we took a wrong turn on a freezing night and ended up in a Costco parking lot in Provo, Utah, George stayed bundled under my jacket until we could find a motel.
George is three and half inches long, with a body bigger and heavier than a mouse. A strict vegetarian, she subsists on banana peels, spinach leaves, cantaloupe rinds and the like. Sweet, sticky bakery is a favorite. Hardly a ravenous devourer of foodstuffs, she eats sparingly, holding tiny pieces of food with her front palps and rotating them as she eats.
Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches are so named for their unique defensive device when startled – an unexpected 90-decibel hiss that never loses its power to surprise even seasoned roach wranglers. Hissers don’t bite, sting or emit noxious odors or liquids. That hiss and their beautiful mahogany-colored armor are their only protection from predators.
Hissers are wingless and lumber around slowly. They constantly groom themselves, like cats, and are unlikely to carry disease and parasites if kept separated from wild roaches in clean habitats. The sexes are very different in appearance: Males have prominent bumpy horns, feathery feelers and are shorter and wider; females have thin, whip-like antennae and are cigar-shaped.
The males use those horns in non-lethal territorial disputes, pushing each other around and hissing up a storm.
Hissers are native to Madagascar, renowned for its unique flora and fauna. Madagascar separated from Africa 165 million years ago, and is home to many mammals, reptiles and insects found nowhere else. The Malagasy call the hissers “Kofoko-foka,” a name that mimics their signature hiss.
For some reason, scientists call hissers “gromphadorina portentosa” – “portentous sow’s snout” in Latin. I figure this must be either big laughs in Madagascar, or some “in” joke among entomologists.
All cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and resiliency. They can survive for several weeks without food or water, and up to a half hour without oxygen. A popular notion is that roaches would survive a nuclear war, but we humans would be toast – and it’s true. Insects are at least 10 times more resistant to radiation than mammals.
Tissue cells are most sensitive to radiation when dividing. This is the basis of radiation therapy on cancers, which divide more rapidly than normal tissue. Insect cells divide only when they’re molting – and they don’t molt after they reach adult size.
Roaches are models of efficient design. They have two sets of feelers – a pair in front for touching and receiving chemical signals, and another pair at the back to detect air movement. They have two little hooks on each of their six feet for climbing, and can even walk up sheer smooth surfaces like glass, thanks to retractable sticky pads on their lower leg parts.
They have sideways-shearing jaws equipped with supplementary feelers to determine if a substance is edible, and have special glands in their digestive tracts to squeeze every possible bit of water from what they eat.
George has reached an enormously advanced age for a cockroach: She’ll be four years old in May. Normal life span for a hisser is 300-600 days. Like most aging pets, she has visibly slowed down, but her only outward sign of senior citizenhood is a recently missing antenna tip. Roaches have multiple breaking points on their appendages to escape the grasp of predators, and she must have caught the feeler on something.
Hissers practice a form of live birth, in which the female extrudes an egg case – the “ootheca” – to harden in the air. Then, in an amazing operation, she rotates it 90 degrees and reinserts it back into her abdomen. The little roaches later emerge from the protected egg case out the back of the mother.
A typical female roach needs to mate only once in her life, and will carry the male’s sperm in a special organ for a long time. When she’s ready for another batch of young, she will activate the stored sperm with a chemical key
When George produced her first egg case, we though she was pregnant – she could have encountered a male before we found her. Not wanting a horde of hisser nymphs around the place, we took out a newspaper ad, offering to adopt-out the expected babies. The ad caught the eye of a Tucson radio station, which had my wife, June, and George on their AM morning talk show twice.
George also is featured prominently in brochures for my wife’s jewelry business, June’s Jools. Some of June’s staple items are pins and garden stakes modeled on exotic insects, including cockroaches.
Images of George have circulated on Internet photography sites for years. I have received lots of requests from entomology Web sites to reproduce the pictures, and lots of “how-to” inquiries from prospective roach owners.
Living with a big bug over several years has been interesting. Naturally nocturnal George sleeps a lot in her house during the day, and like many wild animals in captivity, responds well to frequent, gentle handling. She requires very little attention, and has been left alone for more than a week with a few choice banana peel slices.
Like all her roachy kind, George is extremely strong and curious. Her antennae are constantly in motion. She spends a lot of time pushing around the furnishings of her habitat, and every morning reveals a new arrangement. A hisser would make a great pet for a kind, inquisitive child. Just make sure to keep them warm.
I’ve unsuccessfully combed every pet shop in North Idaho and eastern Washington to find a younger friend for George. A female friend, that is. I don’t want to be a roach rancher again, but I’m used to having one around.
Writer Mike Gearlds works from home, where he enjoys an abundance of yellow jackets, stink bugs and carpenter ants.