Over 7,000 creatures were stolen from the Philadelphia Insectarium in what could be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Now, the museum is looking forward.
“Animal is gone on a travel show.”
Throughout the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, this message is now attached to many empty cages. In the back of the house, cages that were once overflowing with biodiverse life now sit empty. The bug museum, the only of its kind in Philadelphia, is crawling with about 7,000 fewer creatures after the vast majority of them were stolen.
John Cambridge, CEO of the Insectarium, 8046 Frankford Ave., estimates that tens of thousands of dollars worth of creatures have been taken — and has very little hope of seeing them again.
“The market for these things is so hungry,” he said. “I’m not holding my breath to get the rest of the creatures back.”
The case is far from a whodunnit. Security footage showed that approximately seven people, all former employees and interns of the museum, had worked together to smuggle the creatures out of the back of the museum in broad daylight. Their ages ranged from teens to upper 20s. They removed the creatures over the course of several days starting Aug. 22, putting them in containers in backpacks.
It all connects back to letting go an employee who had failed to live up to the job expectations, Cambridge said.
“Unfortunately the person we were going to let go knew he was about to get removed, and he just convinces everyone to take all the stuff,” Cambridge said.
At first they thought three people were involved in the inside job. Then five. Then seven. As the investigation progressed, they realized the stealing had been carried out in two different waves.
After the first wave, a bright blue employee uniform was found stabbed in the wall, impaled by a knife.
“We just called to say can we get them back,” Cambridge said. He said at the time, he did not want to involve police.
But the magnitude of what was stolen sunk in about a day and a half later, after the second wave of thefts. They found empty cages ransacked in the back of the house, where most of the creatures are kept.
“I think they just took it because they thought the other people would get the heat for it,” he said.
Among the stolen critters were endangered species and animals that were smuggled into the country and being harbored at the museum as evidence. Cambridge said stealing them was quantified as tampering with federal evidence.
“You have to be dumb to do this in the first place, but you have to be so dumb to hold on to the creatures once you know we know you took them,” he said. “I’m concerned that instead of treating these creatures with the respect that is due to any life form, they’re just treating them as getting rid of the evidence.”
Most of the 7,000 stolen creatures were creatures in feeder colonies, which can hold approximately a thousand insects each.
Record logs keeping track of the creatures were also stolen, making it difficult to ascertain the exact number of creatures missing.
The crime was reported to police who are conducting an investigation. An estimated 5 percent of the creatures have been recovered.
“I hope they don’t get in too much trouble,” Cambridge said. “I’ve met some terrible people throughout this project who really deserve to get in a ton of trouble, and these are not them. These people are idiots, but I don’t think they realize what they were doing.”
Cambridge said this incident would be used as a lesson to help create a better insectarium.
Several families visited the museum Aug. 30, about a week after the creatures started vanishing. The staff had managed to fill enough of the exhibit space with remaining creatures that Cambridge said were usually housed in the back.
Sunday was the last day the second and third floor of the insectarium would be open to the public until early November. The floors will be shut down and renovated with added security.
The insectarium is planning a grand re-opening Nov. 3 as host to the Philadelphia Oddities Expo. The event will include live entertainment and interactive attractions while guests can once again explore all three floors. The second floor will be transformed into an ink parlor to showcase the work of tattoo artists.
The butterfly pavilion, shop and Sweet Rainforest café will remain open in the meantime. Tickets will be offered at a discounted price.
The insectarium also hosted a community work day on Labor Day to help clean out the upper floors to prepare for renovations.
“We are going to be rebuilding those floors from scratch better than we ever did before,” Cambridge said. “This is a really unfortunate catalyst, but we’re going to turn this into a benefit for us.” ••
To learn more about the Philadelphia Oddities Expo, visit here.
To donate to the insectarium’s GoFundMe, visit here.
Logan Krum can be reached at lkrum at newspapermediagroup.com