You Can Lead a Pill Bug to Water…

But You Can’t Make Them Do Much Else.

Photo by Terrye Turpin

I’d been thinking about adopting a cat. I wanted a soft, purring companion, one that wouldn’t demand I hand over the remote as they snuggled up next to me on the couch. My vision didn’t include dumping out the litter box. Despite numerous calculations, my bank accounts refused to yield the proper amounts for the large pet deposit required. Was I even ready to share my 650 square feet of space with another living being, one that wouldn’t get its own dinner or tend to its own toilet needs?

I mentioned to my boyfriend, Andrew, “Maybe we should get a fish.”

“Oh! Let’s pick up some pill bugs,” he said, “they can live up to three years in captivity!”

I doubted this, as I used to collect them as a child. I called them “Roly Polys”. They tended to last about two weeks, or until my mother spotted the jar I kept them in and made me dump them out.

At least the pill bugs would not require a big investment in dollars. I knew they wouldn’t be cuddly, but I expected them at least to be entertaining.

“What do you feed them?” I wondered.

“They eat their own poop,” Andrew informed me. “And fish flakes,” he added.

We set off to Petco to get a suitable habitat and other supplies. When we got there, I stopped to admire the cats and kittens up for adoption at the front of the store. I sighed over a particularly sweet gray tabby as a store employee came up to me.

“Are you thinking of adopting a cat?” she asked.

“Oh no, I’m just looking at them,” I quickly replied, before I could include “Cat” on my list of impulse purchases.

“What kind of pet do you have?” she continued, a pleasant smile on her face. I froze, looking at this nice gray-haired lady in a Petco t-shirt. I realized if I answered “pill bugs” this might result in a longer conversation than I wanted to have at that moment.

“We have a fish,” I blurted out and then rushed over to join Andrew by the aquarium supplies.

“You denied the pill bugs!” he accused.

“Well, yes, but technically I wasn’t too far off, you remember you told me they were crustaceans.”

Supplies in hand, we managed to check out. Once we got back to the apartment, we assembled our purchases — a medium sized glass terrarium, sand, a small water dish, and a container of fish food. I insisted on putting two plastic plants in the habitat. Andrew tried to talk me out of the tan resin statue of Mount Rushmore, but I wanted to watch a pill bug climbing up the sides like a tiny Cary Grant.

Later that night we went for a walk in the park next to our apartment complex, and gathered up a nice variety of pill bugs. They looked like little armored tanks with antennae. When we set them loose in the terrarium, they scurried around for a few minutes on the plants, but none of them were inclined to scale Mount Rushmore. When we touched them, they rolled up into little balls. They seemed to enjoy the fish flakes and after they ate, they burrowed under the sand and disappeared.

Over the next few days we looked for the pill bugs, but they remained stubbornly out of sight. Apparently pill bugs do not live exciting lives. They are perfectly happy to stay covered in dirt all day and night, venturing out briefly to nibble some fish flakes and possibly some of their own poop before returning to the soil.

Eventually we noticed that the only thing moving in the terrarium was a large colony of gnats. Every time I spritzed some water in for the hibernating pill bugs the gnats rose up in a small dark cloud and zipped toward my nose and ears like kamikaze pilots. Andrew tried vacuuming them up, and he did manage to eliminate some of them, along with one of the plastic plants. He insisted this was not intentional, and swore that he saw pill bugs scrambling for safety after the poor plant was dislodged. By the time I came over to look they were out of sight again.

We had company over, and my friend Susan swatted at the gnats circling her head and suggested we set up a trap for them.

“Use a plastic bottle and some apple cider vinegar as bait,” she said.

Andrew rigged up a device, and before I could protest, he poured in some of my gourmet pomegranate vinegar. They deserved, I allowed, to drown in the best.

I monitored the vinegar trap, but the gnats preferred the warm, moist terrarium and the fish flakes. The pill bugs continued to hide, offering neither amusement nor companionship. Those little crustaceans were poor pets after all.

The gnats ventured out whenever I sat down in front of the television or my computer, drawn by the warm glow of the electronic light. I heard them buzzing around my ears, as though they were whispering secrets. Maybe they wanted to tell me what those pill bugs were up to all night. When I finally gave up swatting away the gnats, several of them settled on my arms and nuzzled against my neck. We sat there in the dark together, their wings light as whiskers and their feet soft as kitten paws.

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