Documentary promises inside look at 2018 heist at Philly’s Insectarium

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Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion CEO John Cambridge holds a pregnant flat rock scorpion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion CEO John Cambridge holds a pregnant flat rock scorpion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Back in 2018, thieves took around 7,000 creatures —  spiders, roaches, and other animals — from the Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion in Northeast Philadelphia. The theft made national news. Jimmy Kimmel joked about it on his show.

Even then, it seemed clear who did it. A few weeks after the heist, museum CEO John Cambridge released surveillance footage showing employees loading the animals into cars.

But the story is not so clear-cut, said local filmmaker Ben Feldman. His documentary, which will be  shown on the free streaming service IMDB TV Friday, promises an inside look into the heist itself, the backstory of the museum, and the exotic world of insect collecting and trading.

“Each character has their set of beliefs. I think there are some documents and some … of the factual record … that we put out there that may help viewers decide a certain way,” Feldman said. “But you know, ultimately we just put the full story out there, and we let the viewers interpret it and decide what they think happened.”

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Feldman said he was fascinated by this story, so even though he was a lawyer at the time, he learned how to make documentary films and worked with a local team on the series, eventually quitting law to pursue filmmaking full time.

A new event space in the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion, featuring a creature mural. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Philadelphia police did not make anyone available for an interview for this article. However, the two officers who investigated the theft appear on camera in the documentary, and one told WHYY News that the case has not been closed.

“They told us how they couldn’t believe the file … that they were investigating stolen bugs … and other cops were teasing them, calling them, `Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,’” Feldman said.

“Their investigation, as well as our own research, allowed us to take a deep dive into this very vibrant and active subculture of people that collect bugs and trade bugs and breed bugs. And … the sheer scale and scope of this trade and this hobby was just astounding to me.”

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also did not make anyone available for an interview. A 2019 National Geographic investigation mentioned that U.S. authorities seized at least 9,000 live or dead arthropods, a group that includes spiders and insects, that were brought into the country for commercial purposes from 2018 to 2019.

In 2006, a Fish and Wildlife agent said he arrested a man who called himself “the world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler” by luring him from Japan to the United States for a date. The smuggler was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $30,000.

There’s a complicated backstory behind the Philadelphia Insectarium itself. Former police officer Steve Kanya said he became an exterminator in the 1970s and would put some of the animals he caught in the shop window — like baby rats or baby squirrels or even an iguana, which a woman called in, complaining of a baby dinosaur. Kanya noticed people would stop by and look at the animals, which gave him an idea.

“There’s art museums … we’re going to make a bug museum,” he said.

The Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion on Frankford Avenue in the Northeast section of the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He got a larger location, and the museum was a hit. Kanya said David Letterman invited him on his show in the 1990s. He trademarked the word “insectarium,” and added a butterfly pavilion in 2016, including monarch butterflies.

A butterfly rests on a leaf at the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Kanya brought on entomologist John Cambridge as director of operations, but the two parted ways on bad terms.

“Through some unscrupulous people, [the Insectarium] was stolen from me,” Kanya said.

Cambridge, now the CEO, pointed to the numerous times the city of Philadelphia cited Kanya for not paying taxes, owing thousands of dollars. Kanya acknowledged that he owed taxes, but questioned why that would lead to him losing his museum.

John Cambridge, CEO of the Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterly Pavilion, holds two leaf insects. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Cambridge said the Insectarium was “truly something that I was initially conned into getting involved in.” He called Kanya a “dreamer” who did financial things not intending to hurt anyone, but to “keep a sinking ship afloat.”

The museum has now become his life, Cambridge said.

“I didn’t take a paycheck for four years, and I ended up living in my office for two years … just to build the place and to keep it going,” Cambridge said, describing how he and his colleagues struggled to create after-school programs and events and other ways to bring people in.

He said that financial difficulty led up to staff members eventually organizing the 2018 heist.

“Every single week we did make it, but it was extremely stressful. And so that … absolutely, I would say, was one of the largest driving factors in the bug heist.”

But Cambridge said the struggle is all worth it for the moments of showing people an insect or animal that amazes them for the first time, and to see people “come in and just be astonished that this thing is real and not some sort of hologram.”

Philadelphia Insectarium & Butterfly Pavilion CEO John Cambridge holds a curly hair tarantula. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s important to be able to see the public respond to these things here because when you’re next to them every day, sometimes you forget how incredible they are,” he said.

The Insectarium shut down during the pandemic, but is open again.

It is still involved in court matters though. Last fall, Cambridge sued the former director of operations, claiming that she wrote checks to herself and her husband using the museum’s money. She is also in Ben Feldman’s documentary.

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