A scorpion hangs from Ken MacNeil’s scraggly beard, hidden in the tangled web of his whiskers. An invited guest, it explores its newly found playground.
All of the bugs and crawly creatures in MacNeil’s Tucson’s Exotic Pet Shop are friends and family for the owner, who turned his childhood fascination for bugs into a booming business.
MacNeil’s 2-year-old shop at the intersection of Euclid and North First Avenues, carries everything from baby emus to flying squirrels and exotic breeds like the Colombian boa constrictor.
According to MacNeil his shop and online business is the largest bug dealer in the United States.
MacNeil, 37, is happily married and a self-proclaimed hippie with flowing blonde hair that passes his shoulders. He even had his own television show in 2011, “Bugging Out,” on the Science Channel.
His passion for bugs and exotic animals has grown with his extensive collection, evoking the nickname “Ken The Bug Guy.”
MacNeil, who quit his computer programming job to start selling bugs, says his store is more than he could have ever dreamed of.
The shop, which hosts ants, reptiles, snakes and even bearded dragons, is also home to more than 10,000 different types of bugs.
It all started with a little boy from Northern California who couldn’t resist playing with bugs. As he grew into an adult, so did his passion for insects.
His collection took off when he decided to turn his hobby into a business. He started selling bugs from a warehouse in California and eventually moved to Tucson.
“I started with selling a few spiders,” MacNeil says. “And one customer wanted 300 of them! It just grew.”
As his business expanded, he began carrying more unusual insects like centipedes, millipedes and even roaches. He branched out further by selling online to customers around the world.
MacNeil stands in his shop amongst his collection, usually chatting with fellow critter lovers. Wearing a Motley Crew shirt and board shorts, a wide grin shoots across his face as he lets multiple bugs crawl all over him.
Scattered throughout the shop are cages for the larger animals and hundreds of small vials for tiny insects.
“Knowing exactly where each creature is, is a must at all times,” he says. Losing track of bugs usually results in hours of searching because it could pose a risk to him or his customers.
MacNeil shares a special relationship with each animal and bug that makes it into his store. He keeps some of the critters in the store as pets, including a bearded dragon and a wallaby – his personal favorites.
“When I really like an animal, it’s hard to let go,” he says.
Kenneth Middaugh, shop employee, has worked there since it opened. Like Ken The Bug Guy, he is from California and loves researching and learning about bugs. Before he joined the store, Middaugh spent 13 years selling computers.
“Most of the people that come in the store are just here to look at the animals,” Middaugh says. “Mainly they are just curious and want to see the place for themselves.”
Some of their most faithful customers first saw the shop as an oddity.
“I saw this place everyday I drive around and finally decided to check it out a few months ago,” says customer Jessie Stolich, who now owns a pet tarantula.
Matthew Prater is another frequent customer who comes to the shop to buy supplies for his two scorpions and tarantula.
“I invest a lot of time in my pets so I want to make sure that I’m taking good care of them,” Prater says. “These guys at the shop know everything there is to know about this stuff.”
Ken The Bug Guy plans to keep his store open for as long as he can. The next big push is to expand the online business and add more employees so the number of exotic pets and bugs in the inventory can grow.
“I would dream of one day owning a larger shop with over 30,000 different types of bugs,” he says.