[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile most people tend to stay far away from insects and spiders, a team of thieves that hit the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion over four days in late August stole thousands of creepy insects!
The thieves made off with hissing cockroaches, desert hairy scorpions, and venomous, six-eyed sand spiders and nearly 7,000 other insects, spiders and lizards, which constitute to more than 80% of the institution’s collection.
John Cambridge, the facility’s owner and chief executive, said he and his colleagues first noticed animals missing from their enclosures. Then they discovered that a backroom used for storing scores of off-display animals contained empty shelves. Then, Cambridge and his employees checked security camera footage, reported Washington Times.
“And then [we] just put our head in our hands for the next 12 hours as we put the pieces together,” he said.
In video from August 22, five uniformed employees can be seen milling about the firelegged tarantula exhibit. One man, a museum director, opens the tank, scoops the spider into a small container and walks away. Less than a minute later, a group of visitors enters the frame, and the remaining four staffers return to work.
Other security camera footage captured the employees loading boxes into their personal vehicles and removing others via a fire escape. Philadelphia police have not named any suspects or filed charges, but Cambridge said that the heist was an inside job.
“Movement of creatures throughout the facility is quite common,” Cambridge told Washington Post. “We’re always taking things for education programs, doing maintenance, cage exchanges, and so they just walked straight out the front door with them.”
But who would want 7,000 very creepy crawlies? Plenty of people, it turns out. Cambridge said the exotic pet industry is “absolutely bursting with buyers right now” – and not just for furry foxes or lemurs, but for insects, too. Some of the stolen animals are known to fetch a pretty penny, reports the newspaper.
A healthy adult Gooty sapphire tarantula can cost more than $350, Mexican fireleg tarantulas go for $250, Rhinoceros cockroaches are worth $500 per mating pair. According to a police report, the entire theft is estimated to be worth $30,000 to $50,000.
The theft, meanwhile, has forced the insectarium to shut down two of its three floors, leaving the butterfly pavilion as the only open exhibit. Police recovered the fire-legged tarantula during a search of one former employee’s house, but most of the stolen animals are still unaccounted for.
“This is the largest living insect heist we’ve been able to find,” Cambridge said.
Karen Verderame, who has spent more than two decades caring for live arthropods at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said the theft of a living collection is nearly unheard of.
Sales of regulated and banned insects take place online as well as at legal trade shows, Verderame said.
Such creatures require permits for a reason. Some creatures, such as hissing cockroaches, are restricted because they could establish breeding populations if released in hospitable environments. Others, including many tarantula species, are restricted because they’re gradually becoming rare in their home ranges.
Cambridge said he almost hopes some have been sold because he doubts their captors would be able to care for all of them adequately for this long. “If they haven’t sold, they’ve probably died,” he said.