Arachnids are ace, beetles are brilliant and reptiles rule

14th January 2011 at 00:00
Creepy crawlies and exotic creatures bring many of us out in a cold sweat, but children in Inverness are unfazed

It feels like the start of a scary movie. The man walks into the lift pulling his luggage trolley behind him, as if he is heading for an airport check-in.

Move in for a close-up of his luggage and there are well over a dozen Perspex boxes with air holes for ventilation. Tighten the close-up and the contents are live and they are moving - enough massive creepy crawlies to make Gilllian McKeith cry for her mummy.

There are great furry tarantulas the size of a fist next to boxes with huge scorpions, cockroaches and giant millipedes - it's a claustrophobic arachnophobic's worst nightmare to be stuck in a lift with this cargo.

Nick Martin and his trolley are on the way to an "Exotic Animal Handling" course he teaches at Inverness College for children aged eight and over. It's designed to help them learn more about exotic species, their care and how to handle them. This week, it's invertebrates and next week it's pythons and boa constrictors.

Nick runs the Scottish Exotic Animal Rescue: Creatures Great and Small at Bogbain Adventure and Heritage Farm, near Inverness. "As a registered charity, we take in all sorts of animals from organisations like the RSPCA and SSPCA and we're keen to highlight the importance of maintaining the correct environmental and dietary requirements for these exotic creatures," says New Zealand-born Nick.

The course is intended to be both educational and informative, says Liz Barron, Inverness College's curriculum manager for science and sport. "We ran the Monster Science Festival last summer and Nick helped us out with that and did lots of hands-on demonstrations for the kids, which went down a storm.

"This is a first for us and, as far as I am aware, it's a first in the UHI network. I haven't seen anything like it advertised anywhere else."

Nick Martin is keen that children and adults should be aware that most of these exotic species are unsuitable as domestic pets.

"There are a few species, but the majority of these creatures shouldn't be in the pet trade - not so much the invertebrates, but the big snakes like constrictors shouldn't be kept in homes," he says. "They're too big, but you do get this yob element that are attracted to them unfortunately."

More than a dozen children and parents have arrived and the children are not remotely put out by the presence of anything slippery, slimy, squidgy or stinky. Most have lizards or the occasional tortoise at home and their mums and dads don't appear to be in the market for venomous snakes.

Some are already happy to handle humungous tarantulas and Jessica Leggatt, 15, from Fortrose Academy even lets one crawl across her cheek. "I have a tortoise at home and this seemed like a very good course," she says. Her younger sister Ellie, 13, has also come along with their dad: "I want rats - they're cute - and Jessica wants another lizard," she says.

Ten-year-old Matthew McGowan from P5 at Tore School allows a giant millipede to stroll up his arm: "I am interested in finding out about lots of different creatures, to learn how to look after them properly. I've got a Bearded Dragon at home - that's a lizard - and I would like another one. And the tarantulas are pretty cool," he says, eyeing them up as they shift slowly inside their containers.

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GOOD TUCKER - IF YOU CAN STOMACH IT

Insect and reptile specialist Nick Martin, 42, grew up on a farm and kept a personal zoo of creepy crawlies under his bed as a boy. His parents weren't particularly impressed by this fascination and his wife doesn't share his passion either.

Before the class arrives, he shows off some of the creatures, including three massive black scorpions which glow a magnificent aquamarine in the dark under ultraviolet light.

"There's been a huge increase in interest in these exotic species over the last few years," he says, as he prepares to start the class. "They are more readily available and there are a lot more animal programmes about them on television."

There's nothing dangerous here, according to Nick. "There are a few that have venom, but no worse than a bee sting," he says. When he's taking animals out, he also takes their aggression into account. "The mean ones don't come out and about on visits."

While showing off some of his exhibits before the children arrive, he pops a cockroach briefly in and out of his mouth.

A pair of cockroaches can breed 35,000 young in a year, so not only are they tasty, but eating them keeps the population down. "They breed like crazy," he says.

Does he really eat them? It feels like he might be having a laugh, but he insists not. "I normally cook them with a bit of cheese sauce on toast. My poor Mrs suffers."

How does the long-suffering Mrs M feel about his unusual menagerie and those late-night suppers? "She hates these things. It's not her thing at all. They're not allowed in the house," he says.

"This is good tucker. One of the healthiest foods you can eat. These boys are over 70 per cent protein. They're tasty," he adds in response to protestations.

"It's only in our western culture we think like that. It's just cultural, a state of mind."

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