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Thursday, June 30, 2022

‘It’s Tiger King meets Ace Ventura’: the wild true story of the world’s biggest insect heist | Television

A room swarming with thousands of giant, exotic creepy-crawlies may sound like your worst nightmare (or one of Ant and Dec’s Bushtucker Trials on I’m a Celebrity). It is also the starting point for Bug Out, the latest bizarre true-crime documentary series, which is set in the US’s first bug zoo, the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion. Prepare for a mystery with more twists than a worm colony.

The show focuses on the moment in August 2018 when the museum’s boss, Dr John Cambridge, arrived at work and did a double take when he realised his room, that ought to have been full of critters, was suddenly empty. Glass tanks were upended, shelves bare, displays cleared out. Thousands of live bugs, worth an estimated $50,000 (£38,000), had been stolen. It was the biggest insect heist in history.

Many of the missing animals were rare, large or potentially deadly – in some cases, all three. The thieves’ haul included scorpions, tarantulas, rhinoceros cockroaches and a six-eyed sand spider. That spider is one of the world’s most venomous arachnids, with a bite akin to that of a rattlesnake. There is no known antidote.

The aspiring director Ben Feldman – not to be confused with his namesake actor, AKA Jonah from Superstore (“One of my interviewees was so disappointed,” he laughs) – was working as a lawyer in Philadelphia, his home town, when the heist news broke. Its value as a story that he could film made his ears prick up.

Watch the trailer for Bug Out.

“I’d heard of the museum,” the 37-year-old says via video call. “Lots of school trips go there. It was set up by this ex-cop called Steve Kanya. Back in 1975, he had a pest-control company called Bug Off. As a publicity stunt, he’d put his ‘Catch of the Day’ in the store window – a huge cockroach, a termite colony or whatever. He noticed that cars kept pulling over to look at it and thought: ‘Huh, there’s something here.’ That developed into the first insectarium in the country.”

When Feldman heard about the theft, he contacted Cambridge. “He immediately said: ‘There’s so much more to this story.’ So I just kept pulling at strings. I figured it was just a clickbaity headline. I never expected such a crazy rollercoaster.”

The case became nationwide news to such an extent that Jimmy Kimmel and Amy Poehler joked about it on late-night TV. The FBI set up a hotline for tip-offs. The museum received thousands of dollars in donations from sympathetic citizens.

In the process of investigating this one-of-a-kind robbery, the Philadelphia police lifted the rock to find a seedy subculture of bug poachers, obsessive collectors and illicit smugglers. They soon surmised that, like half of workplace robberies, this was probably an inside job. But which of the museum’s eccentric staff was responsible? And where were the 7,000 bugs?

Those under the magnifying glass included Kanya, who claimed Cambridge had swindled him out of ownership. The documentary also reveals that the museum’s etymology expert, Wlodek Lapkiewicz, had a lucrative sideline trading illegal species via mail. Another employee, Michael Kinzler, had a criminal record that included theft from an employer. Chris Tomasetto and Alison Mumper, a sweet couple covered in insect tattoos, were also under suspicion, having led a staff mutiny.

The Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion after being robbed
The museum after the robbery. Photograph: Courtesy of IMDb TV

Their colleague Kelvin Wiley was big on social media for letting bugs crawl over his face – and quit his job immediately after the heist. In one scene, Wiley casually opens his mouth and a huge, hairy tarantula crawls out. It provides one of Bug Out’s many “WTF?” moments. “There was an audible gasp from the camera crew,” says Feldman. “I showed that episode to a friend last week and as soon as the spider came out, he was like: ‘This is going to be a hit.’ He was so repulsed.” Another memorable scene shows a panicking employee disposing of a giant African snail – illegal in the US – in grisly style. “It’s the size of a dog,” says Feldman. “Like something out of Star Wars.”

Cambridge, meanwhile, has a delicious turn of phrase. He describes one ex-colleague as “a tremendous ding-a-ling of a human” and another as “an enormous bag of assholes”.

The surprise-laden saga takes in death threats, embezzlement and organised crime. Feldman follows the money from bug-runners in Australia to criminal cartels in Mexico. There is a botched police raid. Giant millipedes and poisonous scorpions, mailed illegally from Africa, escape inside a post van. At one point, a federal agent – the excellently named Ed Newcomer – catches the world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler, the notoriously elusive Yoshi Kojima, in a honey trap – despite Newcomer being straight and married.

Bug Out took three years to make and led Feldman to quit his legal career to become a full-time film-maker. Like an off-kilter whodunit, it untangles a spider’s web of lies and exposes bitter feuds behind the scenes of a seemingly wholesome museum. Feldman tells the extraordinary story over four pacy 35-minute episodes that beggar belief and are eminently bingeable.

Bug Out continues the trend away from “murdery” crime documentaries towards con-based yarns, be it online-dating scams (The Tinder Swindler, Sweet Bobby) or identity fraud (Inventing Anna, The Puppet Master). They are just as compellingly voyeuristic and equally revealing about human nature, but without the unpleasant aftertaste. “This isn’t the kind of murder-based true crime we’ve all seen a hundred times,” agrees Feldman. “I’d put Bug Out in a category of its own. It’s Tiger King meets Ace Ventura.”

The story has several scorpion-like stings in its tail, and Feldman believes the full extent of the scandal still hasn’t emerged: “I think there’s more to come.” No spoilers, but the climactic episode has a dizzying rug-pull and a couple of very tense confrontations. “There was definitely an atmosphere during those conversations,” he says. “That’s where my legal training came in handy.”

Bug Out is on IMDb TV, Amazon’s free streaming service, from 4 March

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