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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Consider the Cockroach

Air Date: Week of

David George Gordon, author of the creepy new book, The Compleat Cockroach, joins Steve for a light-hearted look at the most despised and least understood creature on earth.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There are bugs, and then there are BUGS. Some have been the subject of profound scientific study, including E.O. Wilson's exhaustive look at ants. Others elicit fear and loathing. Consider the cockroach. Many of us shudder at the very thought of these small critters climbing around our homes. And then there are people like the man who joins us now, writer David George Gordon. Is it true, Mr. Gordon, that you like cockroaches so much you keep them as pets?

GORDON: That's right. I have a tankful of them in my office.

CURWOOD: And you write about them. Your book is called -- your newest book is called The Compleat Cockroach, I see.

GORDON: That's right.

CURWOOD: Now, we must tell our listeners that your previous book was called The Field Guide to the Slug.

GORDON: I've always had the predisposition for the underdog, I guess.

CURWOOD: Now tell me, David, about these roaches. I mean, you've got them as pets. Do they make affectionate pets? I mean, when you come home at night, can you play with them?

GORDON: You know, you can play with them. I'll be the first to admit that they won't go fetch your slippers or, you know, bring you your newspaper and wag their tail as you scratch them behind the ears. But if you like animals as pets to watch, for example, tropical fish or a turtle or something like that, they make pretty decent pets.

CURWOOD: And I suppose if you're sort of sloppy about your snack when you come home from work, they'll just sort of scarf it up for you, right?

GORDON: Well, you know, I have about 30 of these guys living in a 15-gallon aquarium with a tight-fitting top in my office. So if I throw an apple core in there, it disappears in about 3 days. (Curwood laughs) It's a good trick.

CURWOOD: David, what is it you like about roaches?

GORDON: I like cockroaches as, they're adaptive survivors. They provide a lot of useful purposes on our planet. They're a great food supply for everybody but people, I'm happy to report.

CURWOOD: Useful purposes on the planet?

GORDON: Well, you know, they're -- they're the little sanitary engineers. They're recyclers of everything from dead leaves to dead animals in the forest. And it's been estimated that they can actually recycle about 6% of the leaf fall in the Amazon rainforest, for example.

CURWOOD: And food?

GORDON: Yeah, of ripe fruits, another dead animal that's laying on the path. If it weren't for cockroaches in those productive jungle habitats, people -- well, the other creatures in those environments -- would kind of be up to their elbows in dead stuff.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. And who is it that enjoys a diet of cockroaches?

GORDON: Well, you know, just about every animal you can name. Everything from other insects -- different kinds of parasitoid wasps, for example, or in the desert scorpions will eat them. Reptiles, snakes and lizards and frogs of course, amphibians. Birds, fish, and even large mammals, like the ocelot has been known to go out and hunt cockroaches.

CURWOOD: People?

GORDON: Some people. There's reports of the hill tribes in northern Thailand collecting cockroaches. And in my book I cite this guy writing from about 1910 where he says, "What do cockroaches taste like? Why shrimp."

CURWOOD: (Pause) I see. (Laughs) David, are you married?

GORDON: I am, and I have 2 children.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. And so -- when did you tell your -- your wife that you were going to move in roaches for pets?

GORDON: You know, these guys kind of arrived unannounced. They were actually mailed to me by Federal Express from a person I'd met in Minnesota. And a little note attached to them that said, "Know -- live with these cockroaches and know their ways."

CURWOOD: Oh, great.

GORDON: My wife, I'm happy to report, is pretty understanding about these things. You know, keep in mind that we also have a tankful of 8-inch-long banana slugs in my office.


GORDON: So, we have a commitment to those invertebrate wonders.

CURWOOD: Roaches are dangerous, though, aren't they? I mean, yeah they're scavengers and yeah they're food sources, but haven't they been linked to asthma and don't they spread disease?

GORDON: Well, you know, yes and no. They have been linked to asthma in situations where there are large numbers of cockroaches crammed together in a small space with large numbers of people. For example, low-income housing. People can have an allergic reaction to what the cockroaches are leaving behind, which is mostly their own shed, you know, exoskeletons, your molts if you will, or lost limbs, or their feces, or even the pheromones, those chemicals that they send out into the air to communicate with each other. If that really builds up, people start having allergic, asthmatic reactions to them. As far as actually spreading diseases, they found all sorts of germs, bacteria and viruses on cockroaches, and some fairly serious ones. For example, polio. But there's no one who's really been able to prove unequivocally that those germs are transmitted to human beings.

CURWOOD: So, why do you think cockroaches have such a hold on the human psyche? I mean, we write about them, they're in movies, they're in music, there's that song La Cucaracha, and you write in your book that if you hear that song one more time you yourself may turn into a cucaracha.

GORDON: (Laughs) Cockroaches, you know, they are ubiquitous and they're a way of urban life. You know, any big city that you go in, just about around the world, you'll find cockroaches occupying a significant place in our society. So I think a lot of people have this if you can't lick 'em, join 'em, and are actually into celebrating cockroaches in literature and in some, as you say. A lot of blues songs have lyrics about cockroaches in them. I found paintings about cockroaches, still lives, pogs, those little kids' playthings. Skateboards, you name it; they appear all over the place.

CURWOOD: What am I supposed to do about these roaches? I mean, is there a safe way, aside from poisoning everybody around us, to get rid of these roaches?

GORDON: You know, in my book I go through a whole escalating arsenal starting with the most environmentally friendly alternatives, and those include things -- the Victorian English, for example, used to keep hedgehogs in their kitchen to keep their cockroach population down.

CURWOOD: Hedgehogs? Hedgehogs?

GORDON: Yeah, they were little pets. They lived in little baskets in the kitchen. You know, New Yorkers, there was a whole craze in the 70s where everyone was keeping lizards, geckos they're called, in their homes as a way of -- they'd be on patrol, munching cockroaches all day long. Then there are lots of these tried and true remedies, like boric acid powder, which actually works quite effectively and is fairly benign as far as a poison goes. Also pyrethrum, which is a powder made from chrysanthemums so that's, you know, all natural pesticide. But in my book I work my way all the way up the chain, and the last essay in my book is whether cockroaches would survive a nuclear attack.


GORDON: Well, my answer is they could survive a small attack, which I think is where the great rumor that they'll outlive us all came from. That's kind of a '50s view of the world. But I believe we now have nuclear capabilities of wiping everything out on our planet.

CURWOOD: Even the roaches.

GORDON: So the reality is, yeah, we could finish off the roaches. If not by the blast itself, then certainly things like nuclear winter, you know, and do 'em in. Of course I go on to point out that if life did survive, even in the forms of algae or bacteria, and over millions of years evolved into another life form, it probably would be a cockroach. We'd start all over again.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Oh, God. David George Gordon is a roachophile. His new book is called The Compleat Cockroach. Thanks for joining me.

GORDON: Thanks for having me.



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