Biological sciences junior Jake Molieri smiled as a large scorpion quickly paced over the bridge of his nose and across his cheek. Once it rested on the edge of his face, he scooped up the wiggling scorpion by its stinger and set it back in its box.
“I used to be terrified of this stuff,” Molieri said. “I used to be scared shitless of spiders.”
Just more than a year ago Molieri decided to begin his business Mo Bugz, where he breeds and sells different varieties of snakes, lizards, tarantulas, scorpions and bugs. He has a collection of 100 to 300 animals each year on average, depending on sales.
Every other weekend, Molieri packs his Prius up with his animals kept off-site and attends bug and reptile shows throughout California. He said he usually makes about $2,000 at each show.
“It’s the most interesting thing to be making money doing the thing you love, and it doesn’t take a lot of work,” Molieri said.
Molieri is a member of a much larger, highly competitive industry. He said companies that mainly sell reptiles at the shows drastically drop their prices to make a sale over another breeder.
“This is a market. There’s competition,” Molieri said. “There are people who will throw you under and try to run you over with prices to try to sell their animals […] That’s why I stick to a market that doesn’t have a lot of competition. I’m in bugs. There’s very few bug people that I work against here in California.”
Molieri said he has become close friends with the other people working in the bug industry in California. Before every show, Molieri and the other bug business owners gather together and pick a static price for each animal to keep profit at random.
Although Molieri runs a business selling his animals, he said his first priority is the animals’ health and wellbeing.
“This is an industry. A lot of people think that they can get into it really fast [but], you know, I’ve gotten to this level in about a year and a half. I want to say to anyone who’s interested in starting this hobby, you need to prioritize the animal’s wellbeing.”
Molieri has been passionate about animals his entire life. He said his grandfather develops large plots of land in Northern California and has always been heavily involved with nature.
“I grew up watching David Attenborough, Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin,” Molieri said. “I met Steve Irwin when I was super little when I went to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in the [San Francisco Bay Area], and that was the biggest moment … [seeing basically my] idol as a kid.”
As a large tarantula scurried down Molieri’s arm and into his hand, he said the animal is highly misunderstood. He said he wished more college students would consider adopting bugs rather than cats and dogs because of their low time commitment and cost to owners.
“If you’re a college student and you want to get a pet, I highly recommend bugs,” Molieri said. “A lot of people think tarantulas are scary, but when you look at them closer, tarantulas are just like eight-legged cats because they have [the] personality of a cat. They like to sit in one spot and they kind of get a bit grumpy if you try to move them. They just walk around and do their thing. They’re fuzzy. [They] aren’t going to attack you.”
Molieri reached out his hand and revealed tiny scars on a palm and his arm where he has been bitten by bugs and the occasional snake. The risk of being bitten is simply a part of the job for Molieri. He said it is worth it. He said he does not blame the animal and it angers him when people do.
“It’s never the animal’s fault. It’s always your fault,” Molieri said. “If you put your hand in there and you own these animals, you need to understand that you are that animal’s only source of care. You are that animal’s only source of dependence. You are that animal’s lifeline. You have to understand that. If you put your hand in there, you have to understand that you will get bit. If you do get bit, know the precautions you will take.”
As a business owner and college student, Molieri said he does not have as much time for making friends as he would like to. He said that although his hobby is a blessing, it can also be a curse.
“It has brought people in and drove people out of my life,” Molieri said. “Sometimes people can handle having a friend with this hobby and some people cannot deal with it.”
Why are they driven away, exactly? Molieri said it is the fear and that he wishes people would take more time to confront why they are actually afraid of something before avoiding it.
“If you saw a guy walking down the street with eight arms, it would be a bit interesting, but you wouldn’t just go out and try to stomp on him with a boot now, would you? You’d be like, ‘He’s a human being, he just has eight arms.’ I try to treat these animals on the same level that I treat other people. I try my best to keep them happy and if something is wrong, I try to figure out what’s wrong, and people just don’t want to understand what makes these animals scary.”
The community that studies and sells bugs is very connected and has a highly supportive structure. Santa Barbara City College student Francesca Heran became friends with Molieri at one of the shows and is now an active member of the community.
Like Molieri, Heran wrote that people outside of the bug industry should take time to educate themselves on the truth and positives of each animal before dismissing them.
“To people outside the hobby: take the time to reassess your views of these animals,” Heran said. “I was afraid until I really got to working with these animals. Most of them don’t want to hurt you. They’re just afraid you’ll hurt them.”
This story appeared in the Dec. 4 edition of Mustang News. Correction from print: All Mo Bugz creatures are kept off-site.