A true-crime series on IMDb TV takes a slightly too po-faced look into a theft from an invertebrate zoo where things weren’t quite as they seemed
23 March 2022
ONE morning in August 2018, the chief executive of an insectarium and butterfly house in Pennsylvania arrived at work to find all his live exhibits had disappeared. “Shelves and shelves and shelves that should have been filled with creatures aplenty were empty,” says John Cambridge.
As tales of true crime go, the “Philadelphia bug heist” was immediately intriguing, not least because of the obvious question: what could anyone want with thousands of insects?
Now, the hunt for the perpetrators has been given the Tiger King treatment in a four-part documentary series for IMDb TV. As with the 2020 sensation featuring Joe Exotic, the most eyebrow-raising moments in Bug Out come care of its subjects that walk on two legs.
The Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion grew out of a 1970s pest-control business called Bug Out that was run by an ex-cop who would display his “catch of the day”. Over the years, the displays got more elaborate and eccentric, and insect enthusiasts were drawn to them like moths to a porch light. It grew into the US’s first invertebrate zoo and, until the robbery, was a family-friendly attraction that chugged along seemingly without incident.
The series follows a broadly chronological structure, starting with the theft before spiralling out into the strange (and surprisingly endearing) world of hobbyists, collectors and traders of creepy-crawlies. On one level, it is an eye-opening insight into an unfamiliar – and, to many, unappealing – pastime, where people are eager to share their enthusiasm for rare cockroaches ($500 a breeding pair) and African land snails the size of small dogs.
A diversion into the booming illegal international trade in rare bugs and other wildlife shows the darker side of human nature, and our obsession with collecting and commodifying every aspect of the natural world.
But just as you didn’t watch Tiger King to learn about big cat conservation, Bug Out‘s real intrigue comes from the people behind the insectarium. In many ways, it is a study of what was a dysfunctional workplace that put human nature, not insects, under the microscope. The most emotionally affecting moments come from employees who fervently wanted to indulge their passion through their work, only to have their dreams crushed by a toxic working environment.
“Just as you didn’t watch Tiger King to learn about big cats, the real intrigue comes from the people”
Until the robbery, these dramas played out on a small stage. Then, the heist was picked up by local media and then national media. Before long it was being discussed by late-night chat-show host Jimmy Kimmel. As a result, Cambridge became a mini-celebrity and the police operation hotted up, with an additional FBI investigation that scrutinised some of the then employees’ surprisingly shady backgrounds.
The crime was more serious than it might sound: Cambridge put the value of the 7000-odd insects taken at as much as $50,000. But the loss of his exhibits was just the tip of the iceberg, as the seemingly wholesome family attraction was revealed to be beset by power struggles and financial mismanagement.
The documentary-makers’ efforts to stoke the drama to true-crime levels are occasionally heavy-handed, suggesting an anxiety about letting the story speak for itself. A dramatically lit corkboard linking suspect mugshots with sticky notes labelled with things like “motive = bugs” is presumably intended to lend drama to the police investigation. The dry humour of the investigating officers, meanwhile, is wasted by the overall po-faced tone of the show.
When the big reveal comes, in the fourth and final episode, it doesn’t quite deliver on the whodunnit promised in the first – in fact, it reveals the narrative to have been somewhat contrived. One gets the sense that the film-makers, having set out to tell the true story behind the Philadelphia bug heist, discovered a vastly different tale to the one they had anticipated and were forced to make the best of it.
The result is a highly diverting although somewhat unsatisfying series: a can of worms that, despite Bug Out‘s best efforts, cannot be tidily contained.
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