Not every pet is warm and fuzzy

It's strange, but I've never been smitten with a great hankering to breed stick insects.

I don't know why this is so. It seems a perfectly natural thing to want to do. Indeed, my older brother was, at one stage of his boyhood, smitten with such a hankering, and I (being four years younger) unquestioningly thought this was just one of the things older brothers do.

It strikes me now that maybe there were in fact a lot of older brothers whose interest in stick insects was, at the most, minimal. But we had them in our family, and I grew quite fond of them, really.

Mind you, they don't run around a lot. Almost any other pet you can think of tops them in this regard. Even goldfish. We had two, George and Margaret; we won them at the fairground by throwing wooden hoops over their bowls and carried them home jogglingly on the bus in jam jars, in trepidation of parental reaction. Though provided with a somewhat diminutive racetrack, goldfish lead a life of dash and thrill by comparison with stick insects.

Even a tortoise (and ours was a master of the studied art of going nowhere with effortless immobility) was a streak of determined and frenetic activity compared with the stick insects. It would occasionally (about once a year) venture its head out to take a cynical look at us, only to pull it in again in sheer fright. Stick insects, frankly, haven't latched on to fright as a notion.

In case you haven't come across a stick insect in your travels, a dictionary definition might not go amiss:

"A stick insect is an insect with a long thin body and legs. It looks like a small stick." I don't know if they grow much in the wild, but my brother's, housed in an air-filled aquarium, weren't much longer than your average darning needle.

Perhaps they were nocturnal in their more active habits. But if so, they didn't keep us awake by bumping into things or rattling around like gerbils or hamsters. Even when we went to the English town of Scarborough for our summer holidays, bringing the stick insects along and having them in our bedroom, they let us sleep undisturbed.

It is possible, like the tortoise, that they didn't like to be watched. With him they shared a propensity for eating in private. And with him also they shared an ability to - vanish! But in the tortoises' case, he vanished more than he appeared, and after living with us for only a few months, he vanished one final time.

My friend the artist Mary Newcomb remembers keeping stick insects as a child. "But," she assures me, hers were "cannibals." I don't recall my brother's brood diminishing conspicuously in this way, but maybe they did. Counting them was never easy - the reason being that they looked so very like the sticks of privet which was their main food. I assumed they were vegetarian; but perhaps they sometimes mistook each other for a stick.

The one thing they did, and this was interesting, was perpetuate their species. Their eggs were minuscule but quite distinct. And the hatched babies shared with all babies the ooh-ah aspect of being perfectly miniature versions of their adults.

That is about all I can think of to say on the subject of stick insects and anyway it was only intended as a gentle lead up to the subject of worms.

I suppose some would argue that I am now one of those men who (theoretically) "have everything" and are therefore impossible to give gifts to. And they might add that this salient fact explains why my wife gave me a clear plastic envelope full of tiger worms on my most recent birthday. I should say that this gift was the result of my enthusiasm, not hers, and it turns out that her willingness to pay for and order it denotes a considerable altruism. The very thought of them makes her squeamish. I am roundly forbidden to keep them in the kitchen. So - in their firmly lidded new home, which is like a large plastic garbage bin - they have taken up residence in the back passage of the basement that leads to the garage.

Some friends of mine have a New Zealand friend who also keenly keeps tiger worms in his house. When he recently came to visit in Scotland, knowing his appreciation of such matters, they took him on a tour of their garden to inspect their compost heaps. And therein lies a clue.

Tiger worms turn kitchen waste into what the pamphlet that accompanied my mail-ordered worms describes as "the caviar of composts." Once at home, the worms can consume all the waste from a family of four, not to mention shredded newspapers. Silently and (we are assured) without odor they chomp away merrily night and day making wonderful rich soil to the immeasurable benefit of all kinds of horticultural endeavor. Or so we are promised.

"Can they escape?" asks my generous wife, possibly imagining that they are the stuff of horror movies, and that the "tiger" in their name hints at rampant and rapacious inclinations.

It seems that she is not the first to ask this question. The Wormery Fact File (which I read to her) is definite: "No, and if the Wormery is looked after as described they have no reason to even try - it's a compost worm's paradise.... Once they have explored their new home they tend to stay well out of sight in the compost."

I guess my new pets, then, are not exactly what you'd call "watcher friendly." And even I don't think they are strokable. But they are a lot more useful than stick insects.

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