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To Eat or Be Eaten – That Is the Question

If you look closely, you will see the hapless lower half of Bruce’s still-wriggling mealworm lunch hanging out of his mouth. Eep!

As many of you already know, I am the proud mama of one set of feathers and two shells. Pearl, Malti & Bruce are my world. One dear friend has nicknamed them “my inner flock” and I couldn’t agree more!

What does this have to do with eat or be eaten, you might be wondering? Well, Malti & Bruce, my red footed tortoise and 3-toed box turtle, both enjoy eating live prey.

This hasn’t always been easy for me to, well, stomach. I personally have never eaten live prey, and I stopped eating not-live prey (except for fish, occasionally) when I was 16. This is relevant because guess who has to feed Malti and Bruce their live prey?

Yup. Me.

Earthworms are a favorite treat. So are snails and slugs. And Bruce is especially partial to mealworms. All species put up quite a fight when offered and I will say my shells are not always the most humane hunters. This is especially true for Malti, who is still figuring out exactly what to do with that live delicious thing that has much faster reflexes than she does.

So the other day I decided to do some research in hopes of helping me feel less guilty when I offer up one live being to be consumed by another live being. 

Specifically, I was wondering if mealworms have any other purpose at all other than to be eaten. So far, the answer appears to be no….and maybe yes.

I opened up my browser and typed in “purpose of mealworms” and got voluminous amounts of information about how to grow and care for (or buy) mealworms for pets and also for people to eat. It seems in some cultures – thankfully not mine – baked or fried mealworms are considered quite delicious as well as nutritious.

Otherwise, most of the information I found seemed to suggest that mealworms are pests, which is par for the course considering they get their common name from their habit of eating up people’s stored grain supplies!

But then I stumbled across an article that really made me rethink my working theory that mealworms are “disposable” beings. As it turns out, some mealworms seem perfectly happy with a daily diet of – wait for it – styrofoam and polyethylene plastic. One study showed that mealworms fed a diet of pure plastic were just as healthy and active as mealworms fed a diet of bran grain!

This is important because if there is one thing we have an abundance – a true excess – of on this round blue planet we share, it is plastic. Specifically, we have amazing amounts of discarded plastic floating in our oceans and sitting, not decomposing, in our landfills.

Mealworms, in their handy Clark Kent disguise as small creepy crawlies with several waving legs and a nasty little bite, might just turn out to be our very own Superman and Superwoman. No superhero could be more unlikely, in my opinion, or more unlikable.

And mealworms only get less attractive as they grow up and turn into scary hard-shelled nocturnal black beetles that like to go crawling around in the dark in cupboards and cabinets….or forests.

When I researched the purpose of the adult mealworm beetle, I learned that they are kind of like the vultures of the insect kingdom. Both the worms and the beetles eat our biological planetary “leftovers” – everything from decaying  plant matter to other dead insects and much grosser biodegradable things as well.

This, in turn, fattens them up nicely for all the wild predators that like to consume them – birds, lizards, larger insects, spiders and rodents, among others.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this right now. I will confess – it is very hard for my large and evolved prefrontal cortex to wrap its head around my participation in the life cycle of a being that seems literally designed to serve as food for other beings.

I know that, in a wild setting, neither Malti or Bruce would hesitate a moment to lunch on a wild mealworm they found wriggling across their path. But that seems a whole lot more random and “natural” than the act of me getting out my long insect feeding tweezers and deliberately selecting a mealworm out of the little plastic (!) bran-filled container I bought them in.

It is a head-scratcher, for sure.

Today’s Takeaway: Over the years, the choice to keep company with and care for beings from other species – the ones we typically call “pets” – has bent and twisted my mind in all kinds of ways that feel both confusing and conflicted. Bruce and Malti are not conflicted or confused – they are just being who they are and eating what they need to eat to stay healthy. I seem to be the only one in our little flock who has any second thoughts about the purpose and design of the food chain of life! What do you think? Have you ever struggled with your role as “prey provider” for your own interspecies family members? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

To Eat or Be Eaten – That Is the Question

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). To Eat or Be Eaten – That Is the Question. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Jan 2019
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