DEARBORN, Mich. - Kyle Kandilian no longer sleeps in his bedroom because it's crawling with roaches - tens of thousands of roaches, maybe 200,000, he says.
And that's just how he likes it.
His mother doesn't even seem to mind.
Kandilian, 20, collects and breeds the insects. In the roach room - which is tidy, by the way, and stacked with boxes and crates of roach colonies - he has about 130 varieties. He raises them for fun, sells some for pets and others as food for reptiles.
Hey, it helps pay for tuition at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he's studying environmental science. He's considering a career in forestry, pest management or nature-insect education.
Question: So, roaches as pets! How'd you come up with that?
Answer: Well, it started with the hissing cockroaches, which kind of have always been the pet roach that people have gone to when you want an interesting insect or a bizarre, sort of wonky pet.
Ever since maybe, like, the 1990s, the Madagascar hissing cockroach - Gromphadorhina portentosa - has been sort of like the standard cockroach pet. It's maybe only been within the last 15 years that people have started looking into other species as pets.... They're fun to maintain and to look at, so a similar thing I guess to people who would keep different varieties of hostas or something like that. Kind of like an indoor garden except that instead of plants, it's cockroaches.
Q. Your mom is a very tolerant woman. Your dad is tolerant, too.
A. That's a very good word to use, tolerant, for both of them. They're very tolerant of my enthusiasm.
Q. So they've embraced the cockroach.
A. Yeah, I guess.
My mom's not scared of 'em. Thank God she's not! Because if she were, this would be a lot more difficult. But, yeah, she'll hold them.
My dad, I think my dad is a little secretly afraid of them.
Q. You do understand that the word cockroach will just freak out a certain number of readers.
A. Yes, definitely. The word cockroach, I don't think there are many other words in the English language that get quite the same result out of people reading them.
But I hope as part of, like, my life mission to change the stigmas associated with the word cockroach. There are maybe a dozen cockroaches that are pests worldwide, out of the 4,000 species. And they give the rest a really bad rap.
Q. Do you have a favorite cockroach?
A. I do have a favorite cockroach. Eublaberus species Ivory - the Ivory head cockroach - has not been identified to species yet.
I've tried with some people from Brazil and we're currently working on identifying it. But it's probably my favorite, very easy to take care of, a lot of fun.
Q. You don't name your pet cockroaches. There's no George or Willie or Francina?
A. I have had names in the past. There was Buck and Joker, various large, male hissing cockroaches. ... But I haven't really named any individuals (lately). Particularly since you get to know it as a culture, or colony, rather than as an individual organism like you would with a dog or cat.
Q. How much would it cost me to get a pet cockroach from you?
A. It depends on the species. Macropanesthia rhinoceros - those rhino roaches that will live 10 to 15 years, those ones are usually $150 to $200. The feeder ones are about a dime a dozen.
Q. So who's buying these things?
A: I have a wide variety of customers. People with reptiles, of course, or amphibians, looking to feed their animals. Universities purchase from me a lot during the school year.
Q. You told me you've actually gotten scholarships because of cockroaches?
A. Yes, I have. When I was a sophomore in high school, I did a project on containing cockroaches called "Best Bug Barrier," which was basically finding out what sort of fluid you could apply to the sides of the containers to keep the cockroaches from climbing out.
Q. This was probably by special request of your mother?
A. Yes, my mother. ... One day at maybe 4 or 5 in the morning, she woke me up and said, "Kyle, we need to stop this," and there was a hissing cockroach on the toilet paper roll. So, from there I was inspired - or rather, pushed - into doing a project on these cockroach barriers. (FYI, Vaseline works best, he says.)
... I went down to the Detroit Science Fair at Cobo Hall, and I placed a Grand Award. So I was then invited to go to the International Science and Engineering Fair. But winning that Grand Award also granted me several scholarships.
Q. You have a website, www.roachcrossing.com. Do you do a brisk business?
A. I do have good business, enough to keep me comfortable in terms of paying off college debt and also, you know, having enough money to buy more cockroaches and also to entertain my other fancies in life, like video gaming and gardening, I guess.
Q. How did the fascination begin with cockroaches?
A. I was at the tech day at University of Detroit Mercy, and there was a display, a 10-gallon fish tank, with some Madagascar hissing cockroaches in it. ... I was just completely captivated with them, just the fact that they were so large and they were just out and about, and they were docile.
I was allowed to hold one. And I remember I went home ... and I asked my mom, "Mom, can I get Madagascar hissing cockroaches?" And she looked me in the face and said, "Kyle? You are never bringing cockroaches into this house." And the rest is history.
Q. At what point did you become proud of your hobby and willing to talk about it publicly? Because the stigma is it's a little weird, right?
A. I guess I've always been kind of weird, and people kind of associate me with that.
So I've always been pretty happy and enthusiastic to talk to people about the roaches and about what I do. ... I've always liked to try to dissociate that stigma as best I can. And I've realized that being an introvert about that isn't the best way to go about it.
Q. Why not centipedes or millipedes or any other kind of bug?
A. Well, they're a bunch of different, beautiful variations on a similar theme.
The body shape in almost every roach is the same, but the way that Mother Nature has tinted and changed each individual species to look slightly different just is very enthralling to me. ... Some of them give live birth like humans. So I've read books that have said that there's a very intimate association between the cockroach egg inside certain female cockroaches ... as there is to humans and human birth. ...
Also, they have a bacteria inside of them, an endosymbiont bacteria that allows them to recycle nitrogen. So they don't need to eat a lot of protein to survive. They can keep growing and growing and growing without ingesting large amounts of protein. So the fact that there are these two organisms intimately dependent on each other ... and the way that it could relate to humans in the future ways we recycle our biomass, or recycle household waste, or process things like even maybe Styrofoam - cockroaches may be able to digest that.
Just the way that that could be linked to benefits for humankind in this creature that a lot of people say, "Oh, it's just a cockroach" ... All these different technologies and innovations we can take from this very humble creature, it's just very mind-boggling to me.
Q. Couldn't you just raise bunnies?
A. Couldn't I just raise bunnies? No. Mammals smell too much.