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The Journal Gazette

  • Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion John Cambridge, owner of the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, with some of the museum's residents.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 1:00 am

Thieves crawl away with bevy of bugs from exhibits

Jason Bittel | Washington Post

Most people try to stay far away from hissing cockroaches, desert hairy scorpions, and venomous, six-eyed sand spiders. Not the team of thieves that hit the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion over four days in late August.

They made off with those critters and nearly 7,000 other insects, spiders and lizards – more than 80 percent 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. At that point, Cambridge and his employees checked security camera footage.

“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 Aug. 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 cameras captured the employees loading some 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 the footage left little doubt that the heist was an inside job.

But why? 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.

A healthy adult Gooty sapphire tarantula can cost more than $350, while Mexican fireleg tarantulas go for $250. Rhinoceros cockroaches are worth $500 per mating pair. According to a police report, the theft is estimated to be worth $30,000 to $50,000.

“This is the largest living insect heist we've been able to find,” Cambridge said.

The FBI joined the investigation in Philadelphia over the weekend. This may be because one of the former employees – all of whom have since been fired – suspected of taking part in the theft lives in New Jersey, Cambridge said; if animals were moved across state lines, federal charges might also apply.

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.