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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Justin A. Cohn | The Journal Gazette 'Marisa Gonzalez' the praying mantis often gets a quizzical look while being held. 

  • Some think the praying mantis looks like an alien.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019 1:00 am

Not your ordinary pet

Praying mantis experience has been rewarding

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

I walked into the house clutching our newest pet and my wife, Andrea, backed away as if I were holding radioactive waste.

“It creeps me out,” she said. “It looks like an alien.”

I thought it was a weird reaction. If there were an alien in the house, I'd think she'd at least take a moment to check it out.

But her response was a typical one. When people learn I have a praying mantis, there's usually an initial ick factor, a you-must-be-crazy expression on their face. Inevitably, though, that's followed by unending curiosity.

Most people never conceived of having a praying mantis as a pet. They are dumbfounded to learn how smart they are, that they are easily cared for and even enjoy treats. They often know mantises are cannibalistic – the female will bite off the male's head after mating – but they hadn't let themselves think of them as cute.

A couple of minutes with my mantis will change that. When she starts grooming like a cat – she'll lick her feet and then rub it on her face – that ick becomes a wow factor.

Fascinating insect

My fascination with praying mantises goes back about 20 years, when I saw one sitting on the hood of my car. As I gazed, it swiveled its head around and sneered at me, as if it were saying, “I know I have a nice butt, but please don't stare.”

I was hooked and found myself looking for another whenever I was outside in the late-summer months. Occasionally I'd find one in the garden, carefully picking it up and letting it walk up and down my arm seemingly unalarmed. I'm a big believer that animals can sense our intentions and that has been reinforced.

About three years ago, when my daughter Tabitha was 9, we found one next to our house. I knew they were great to have on the property because they eat pests like mosquitoes and because many consider them to be good luck. I'd also read that they are intelligent enough to recognize humans and that mantis proved it. Every day for a couple of weeks, she'd be in the same spot, ready to be picked up so my daughter could show her off to neighborhood kids.

Tabitha and I agreed that someday, we'd try domesticating one. As luck would have it, we didn't see one until August, when one was perched on our bird feeder. (Yes, some adventuresome mantises will try to eat a small bird.)

After it came back the next day, we decided to give it a try. Tabitha named it Gonzalez until we learned – by counting the number of abdominal segments – she was female. Now, she's Marisa Gonzalez.

They've got personality

We're huge animal lovers in our house. We have a dog, a cat and a rabbit. But having an insect is a different thing altogether.

I never understood people who had exotic pets such as tarantulas and claimed to “love” them. The oddity of having such a creature I got, but affection? Now I understand.

Marisa clearly has a favorite – me. And a second favorite – my daughter. She gets happy about things, namely crawling up my arm and trying to get on my face, where the beard mystifies her; or my shoulder, which is a nice place to take a bath; or onto my smartphone because she's photogenic.

She gets frustrated, like when I keep her from going the direction she wants. She gets curious, cocking her head if she sees our dog run by. And she gets scared, pulling her arms into an attack position if she gets startled.

She also seems immune to the effects of gravity. She will hang upside down most of the day and easily climbs up the slipperiest of surfaces.

Feeding her isn't as hard as I thought it would be. At first, I'd catch something from the yard, such as a grasshopper or mosquito hawk, and put it in her enclosure. But as the temperatures cooled, I bought a box of crickets from the pet store. Watching her hunt is amazing to me, but it's certainly not for the overly squeamish.

And mantises love honey, something I didn't believe until I saw Marisa grab a spoon and begin lapping.

The thing that absolutely boggles my mind about having a mantis is that she could fly away if she wanted to; she just chooses not to do it. She's flown three times, once because she was desperate to get from my hand to my chest and twice because she wanted to check something out on the couch.

Of course, people will ask if she wouldn't be happier in the wild, but she seems very content and I know she's well cared for, handled very carefully, so I apologize for nothing.

Easy to care for

What I'd read has turned out to be true: a mantis is easy to care for and good for kids to learn pet-owning responsibilities. You need an enclosure – I bought one at the pet store for about $20 – with substrate, like soil, that you change periodically. A couple of sticks for the mantis to climb on helps. So do some tweezers to help with feeding. You must mist the enclosure once a day, so the temperature and humidity are OK.

There are websites on which you can mail-order a mantis. While I took in an adult, there's more to raising a younger one, which will molt, require different food (like fruit flies) and could produce an egg sac, which you'll have to deal with unless you want a bunch of nymphs running around your house.

There are plenty of reputable websites that can help you with the ordering and raising process, including Keepinginsects.com, and I've learned you don't want to just ask someone at the local pet store who may not have mantis experience. They steered me toward crickets that had been fed on carrots, and those can be toxic to mantises.

It's also important to remember there are many different types of mantises – mine is a Chinese mantis – and personalities will vary. Mine is affable, but you could wind up with a less-docile one.

The lifespan varies from 7 to 14 months.

If you get one, it will be a conversation piece. Heck, even my wife has been warming up to Marisa Gonzalez. She hasn't held the bug yet, but she gave her some honey just the other day.

jcohn@jg.net