Some thoughts on the common cockroach

Or how to save environment and civilisation for future generations


Suresh Menon | November 30, 2012

Every morning I check to see how I can contribute to making our lives richer, more rewarding and useful to future generations. In recent years I have, on the recommendation of various scientists, given up smoking, using the car when a bicycle is available, sold the refrigerator, air conditioner, washing machine and other ozone-depleting devices (I still have my chair, though). In fact, on a good day I can often be seen trapping some passing ozone and putting it in sealed boxes for the above-mentioned generations.

“There goes the saint,” my neighbours would say if they knew. “He gave up his comforts so our grandchildren may live.”

But saints have different job descriptions. Some laugh, others hug, a few take lovers, some write long books full of dos and don'ts, others appear on television and preach. But there is too one category, and that is the one I belong to. Some kill, and I belong to this lot - bringing the life of a passing cockroach, for instance, to an abrupt end. And now I read that this is the worst thing you can do. I might as well have kept my fridge, for in killing cockroaches I hasten the end of civilisation as we know it. The warning comes from the chair of the biology department at the University of Texas, and you have to believe these chairs.

Shorn of the technical stuff, what he said in effect was that you kill a cockroach today and the day after tomorrow there will be no civilisation. And tomorrow? In the words of that popular Hindi song, none of us knows what will happen tomorrow. Cockroaches, in short, are crucial for the environment. They scurry about, they scuttle, they seem to stare at you like a school principal who has caught you doing something awful, they turn eatables into non-eatables. But we must learn to tolerate them. For they do more for the environment than even the boxes of ozone I have collected over the years.

According to the University of Texas, the disappearance of cockroaches would play havoc with the nitrogen cycle. As one of their prominent cockroach lovers said, “Most cockroaches feed on decaying organic matter, which traps a lot of nitrogen. Cockroach feeding has the effect of releasing that nitrogen in their feces (scientific papers are seldom written with any delicacy) which then gets into the soil and is used by plants. Extinction of cockroaches would have a big impact on forest health and therefore indirectly on all the species that live there.”

I don't know if science has confirmed that only two creatures can survive a nuclear war – cockroaches and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. But one thing they (the former, I mean) cannot survive is a rolled up newspaper handled with plenty of wrist work.

From a young age, killing cockroaches was the one thing I was good at. I may not know how to change a bulb or drive a car, but this is one gift that has actually improved with age. Sometimes I sense I can stop a cockroach dead in its tracks by merely staring at it; from this to whacking it over the head with the morning's newspaper or weekend's magazine is child's play.

And now I must control myself for the greater good of mankind. I have seen the light – I shall now adopt these creatures as pets in the knowledge that they are the saviours of mankind. A website on keeping cockroaches as pets (I kid you not) advises me that their homes must be 'safe, escape-proof and big enough' which sounds rather like a newspaper office I once worked for in India. It also tells me that 'young cockroach nymphs can escape through the smallest cracks' which might be a euphemism for something naughty.

But my decision is made. From now on, I shall feed and clothe and entertain these creatures. If they don't like the paper used in 'Ulysses', for example, I shall get them something in the Harry Potter series to chew on.

I shall take my favourite cockroach for a walk tied to the end of a string – and you must pardon me if I don't greet you on the road; it might be feeding time, and cockroaches get preference over mere human beings. After all, they will be saving our world, so the least we can do is preserve theirs.




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