Spiders, such as this red knee tarantula, are one of many highlights at the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion.

Most people want the creepy crawlers in their homes and offices to disappear. But when it happened to the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion last August, it was devastating.

“It was a pretty astonishing situation. It certainly caught us off guard,” said Insectarium CEO John Cambridge of the theft of more than 7,000 live creatures from the arthropod zoo’s collection.

It wasn’t the number of critters stolen that was so shocking; insectariums are meant to house large colonies of some creatures. “What was really striking was the diversity of things that they stole,” said Cambridge of the more than 80 species that went missing.

Among them: giant African millipedes, flower and orchid mantises, leopard geckos and various kinds of chameleons, stick insects, beetles, cockroaches, scorpions and spiders, including one of the Insectarium’s endangered Gooty sapphire tarantulas. “There are about 1.9 million organisms that humanity’s been able to name and 1.1 million of those are insects. The vast majority of natural life comes from insect diversity and our institution specialized in displaying that,” said Cambridge.

The stolen collection of creatures was valued at up to $50,000. But “when you have a creature that’s endangered, a dollar value is somewhat meaningless. It doesn’t matter if you say its worth is $1 or $1,000; go try to get another one,” said Cambridge.

After the robbery, two Insectarium uniform shirts were found tacked to the wall.

 

AN INSIDE JOB. Five perpetrators, four current and one terminated employee, were caught on camera methodically packing the creatures into containers and carrying them out. In addition, two Insectarium uniform shirts were found tacked to the wall with large knives. “It was a highly coordinated incident,” said Cambridge.

Most of the creatures were lifted over the course of several days from a back room where colonies of the insects are raised. “In order to confidently have some of these odd creatures we have to rear them. And that means having those special set ups in the back,” explained Cambridge.

According to the Philadelphia Police Department, no arrests had been made by mid-January and no further releasable information was available.

“We’re not pursuing them criminally. For the most part, these were young kids. This is a really unfortunate incident but kids do dumb things,” said Cambridge.

The thieves still will likely face serious consequences. That’s because some of the stolen tarantulas are evidence in a federal smuggling investigation. (The Insectarium is one of the facilities that can house such creatures between seizure and trial.)

As such the FBI got involved in the investigation early on; then it was determined that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had jurisdiction. “There are a lot of permits that surround these creatures,” as well, noted Cambridge of the special certifications needed to own, work with and transport them.

“This is not something which is taken lightly by the USDA,” he said. In fact, Cambridge believes the thieves would be in less trouble today if they had taken the cash from the register.

John Cambridge, owner of the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion.
A giant desert centipede.
Butterflies.
Bark scorpions glowing.


 

REBUILDING EFFORT.  Cambridge hopes the rest were sold to people who know how to care for them, as that’s their best chance for survival at this point. “The amount of maintenance that it would take to care for that number of creatures, you’d need an institution to do that. It’s not feasible for someone to keep that many pets in their bedroom,” he explained.

Only about a dozen creatures — one of them a Mexican Fireleg — were recovered by the police and returned to the Insectarium.

Since the theft, zoos, museums and private donors from across the United States have stepped in to help the Insectarium rebuild its collection. “In fact, we have a lot of things now that we didn’t even have before,” said Cambridge of the many rare creatures now calling the Insectarium home.

People donated different species of iguanas, flat rock scorpions and spiders, including Chilean rose hair and Indian ornamental tarantulas, among many other creatures.

“For a week after the story hit the news, you knew not to just willy-nilly open any packages that came to the front office because half the time they were filled with tarantulas,” recalled Cambridge.

In addition, the Insectarium started a GoFundMe page that raised $19,466 through mid-January. Orkin contributed more than half of that through a Bring The Bugs Back post on Facebook. It donated $1 for every ‘like’ and $5 for every ‘share’ up to $10,000, which it quickly reached with the post getting more than 1,550 likes and 1,153 shares.

Orkin Region Sales Manager David McDeavitt presented the check to Cambridge on Nov. 3 during the Philadelphia Oddities Expo, which also coincided with the Insectarium’s reopening. The facility’s second and third floors where arthropods are displayed to the public were closed for two months following the theft.

Orkin’s donation helped the Insectarium renovate those two floors. “We’re trying to turn this into a positive and want people to come back to not only just the old arrangement but really to something new and improved,” said Cambridge. A new plaque acknowledges Orkin’s support.

David McDeavitt (right), Orkin region sales manager, presents a ceremonial check to John Cambridge, owner of the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion.

“Science education is a natural fit for Orkin — after all, every pest management solution we offer is backed by science. We’re committed to cultivating a curiosity and a love of learning in the next generation of scientists,” said Orkin Managing Director Cam Glover.

“At Orkin, the study of insects enables us do our job every day,” added Glover, citing the great job the Insectarium does in teaching the community — and possibly future Orkin employees — about the important role insects play in the ecosystem.

Orkin isn’t the only pest management company to show the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion some love. Since 2017, Cooper Pest Solutions (now part of Terminix) in Lawrenceville, N.J., has provided funds to cover travel costs and admission fees for children’s groups to visit the zoo.

The Insectarium was founded in 1992; its butterfly pavilion opened in 2017.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.