Lord of the Flies: Norm Gershenz Saves the Planet by Placing Bugs Upon Children

When a man brandishing an insect the size of a Mars Bar asks if you'll extend your hand, it's something of a loaded question. But, naturally, you do extend your hand. And it's soon loaded.

The eastern lubber grasshopper is a striking creature, with coloration resembling a tiger wearing a yellow cycling vest. At nearly 4 inches from bug eyes to bug derriere, it's large enough to stare down a purse chihuahua. A beast emblazoned in red, yellow, and orange imparts a three-pronged message to the world at large: Maybe I'm dangerous, or maybe I'm poisonous, or, at the very least, I taste terrible. A grasshopper that knows it's untouchable has a spring in its step; it marches up your sleeve with élan. It doesn't have to worry about where it goes — and that goes for more than walking.

"Ah!" says Norm Gershenz with slightly malevolent glee. "He's left you a gift."

Sure enough, the beastie deposited a golden globule of grasshopper excrement on your humble narrator's sleeve. Well, that's what you get for wearing a dry-clean-only sweater to a place called "the insect lab." But it's okay. In fact, it's all part of the plan. In the small scheme of things, a large grasshopper has just soiled an extremely decent buy at Out of the Closet. But in the grand scheme, Gershenz is helping to save the world.

For nearly 20 years, Gershenz was a fixture at the San Francisco Zoo, ministering to the needs of animals that could do a lot worse than befoul the cuff of your sweater. "I took care of pandas, koalas, rhinos, and giraffes," he says. But then he looked down. "You're really only showing 1 percent of life at a zoo. Once you start looking at insects, your life changes forever."

Well, Gershenz's did. In the Potrero Hill offices of SaveNature.Org, which he co-founded 25 years ago, the din emanating from hordes of caged crickets overpowers conversation. The framed photos on the walls are exclusively glamor shots of insects. Insects flit about in dozens of terrariums; many are eerily large and resemble the papier-mâché creatures emerging from deep within the Los Angeles hills in post-apocalyptic 1950s B-movie fare.

Every day, portions of this bestiary are disseminated to area schools and libraries. SaveNature.Org holds more than 800 outreach programs a year, with many involving large, docile insects traversing young children and their teachers. That sounds like a worthwhile enough endeavor on its own, but Gershenz has bigger ideas. Those bugs are the gateway drug in his habitat-forming scheme: A conservation ideology that doesn't just focus on individual species, but entire ecosystems. His raison d'être is amassing funds to purchase huge tracts of jungles and deserts — and preserving them in a state of nature. Thus far, more than 30,000 acres have been saved.

So, this is the master plan Gershenz is setting into motion when he places oversize bugs in undersized hands. Most adults could probably grasp this concept without the aid of a kazoo-sized creature crapping upon an arm. But Gershenz insists your humble narrator receive the full six-legged treatment. He asks, solemnly, for our hand.

We acquiesce.

"If someone drops one of those," Gershenz says with a nod at the silver dollar-sized darkling beetle negotiating my watchband, "it's hard. It's not gonna explode. It's gonna survive. People soon realize this is a good animal. It's the Macintosh of insects; it's so user-friendly."

Heart palpitations. Breathe. Steady. Eyes closed. Eyes open. Huh. Your humble narrator is now grasping an 8-inch-long giant African millipede. Gershenz is saying something about "eggs laid within a fecal ball." Lovely.

The millipede gives way to an Australian walking stick, which resembles a scorpion crafted out of serrated cardboard. She is succeeded by a Madagascar hissing cockroach, which Gershenz takes care to excite a bit so it emits its signature sound while hiking along our ulnar artery like it was the Appalachian Trail. And, finally, an honest-to-God scorpion is deposited into my palm. Of course, in scorpion school, the vinegaroon would be the bespectacled AV geek pushing a projector into homeroom; rather than inject deadly poison like the cool kids, it emits a mist of vinegar (combine that with the oily residue of the grasshopper's "gift,"and you're well on your way to the most wretched of all salad dressings).

That's well and good for the kids, but Gershenz is hoping groups of adults will visit him at the insect lab. (You can sign up at SaveNature.Org.) Not only will they be pawed over by insects, he promises to reveal everything you always wanted to know about millipede sex, but were afraid to ask. Here are a few of the terms that will come up: "gelatinous white globes," "belly to belly," "pulsating," and, of course, "teachable moment."

Australian walking stick sex, meanwhile, is a bit less graphic. In the world of asexually reproducing parthenogens, Maureen Dowd is right — men aren't necessary. Knowing this all too well, a male walking stick escapes his coop and moves quicker than you'd imagine across the room and up a curtain. Gershenz is forced to figure out how to chase it down before his dog does the same.

And that, too, is a "teachable moment."

For a menagerie of the creatures that crawled upon your humble narrator, visit sfweekly.com/slideshow.

 
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