BEATRICE — Most people would probably prefer not to have a house full of roaches, rats, worms and beetles, but Anthony Ward isn't like most people.
To Ward, they're not vermin, they're a business model.
Skeeter's Feeders, Ward's Beatrice-based company, not only sells insects and rodents, he makes home deliveries. It's what his business card calls "the meal delivery service for your predatory pets."
Part-biologist, part-delivery man for lizards and snakes, Ward is very much an animal lover. He's got a dog, cats and chickens at home, as well as thousands of squirming mealworms, which are now getting ready for their pupae-stage transformation.
The worms consume moisture from chunks of potato and feed on the ground up oatmeal, flour and wheat germ substrate mixture that they crawl through. Ward's 1,500 mealworms are unknowingly fattening themselves up to be a meal for a bearded dragon.
"I do pride myself on feeding our animals human-grade food," he said. "I could bake the substrate that my mealworms and my beetles are living in right now. I could bake it into oatmeal cookies in two seconds. It'd taste good, too, I'd just have to add a little sugar."
Ward is a bit of an evangelist for what he calls "zoo quality" animal foods. Insects and rodents fed on quality ingredients make a healthy, more nutritious meal for snakes and reptiles, he said.
There's a whole world of pets that no one ever sees, Ward said, even in Beatrice. There are at least 100 bearded dragons that he knows of, with roughly the the same number of leopard geckos, an estimated 150 snake owners and numerous tree frog aficionados all within city limits, Ward said, and he's trying to feed as many of them as he can.
"You give them that full range of diet and it's almost like it's not even the same animal," he said. "You give them that outside of their tank time and you treat them well and you treat them to the life that they deserve, and it's the same difference between leaving a dog on the chain in the backyard or having them be part of your family."
The rats and mice he sells come with no pretense. Ward said that stores like Petco and Petsmart will sell live mice and rats, but often make the assumption that customers are buying those animals as pets when they are going to be dinner for a snake.
Even though his insects and animals are going to end up being a meal, he said that doesn't mean they can't live happy lives. All of his rodents are living off of boiled, farm-fresh, free-range eggs, getting all the essential amino acids and proteins that they require.
"I don't see them as just disposable," Ward said. "They're plenty tame and hand-raised. If someone wants to take one home and not feed it to something, that's their prerogative."
Ward knows that freeze-dried crickets or food pellets will provide all the nutrients to an animal, but they don't fulfill the instinct to hunt, he said.
Ward compared his operation to how owners feed their dogs: a dog may happily eat kibble or canned food, but throw it a piece of steak from the table or give it a bone to gnaw on, and it will get a taste of its animal instincts. The same goes for all animals, he said.
"Even hedgehogs and rats, throw a couple living crickets in there, and you'll see a side of your pet you never knew (it) had," he said. "They'll really get predatory, and it'll almost look a little intimidating sometimes. They'll be pouncing around, jumping, hunting through the cage, rather than just lazing around, kind of bored."
Insect protein is the single most absorbable protein there is, Ward said. Pound for pound, protein from insects is better for whatever — or whoever — is eating it, he said.
Cricket protein has been a staple in cultures around the world for centuries, and the delicacy is starting to become more popular in the U.S. Cricket flour is growing in popularity and there's even a company in Lincoln making a product called Jump Coffee, which contains crickets and caffeine.
Ward had a customer in Kearney who had a protein intolerance thanks to a tick bite that left him unable to eat any protein that didn't come from plants or insects, he said. So far, no one in Beatrice has placed an order for their own consumption, but Ward said he's ready.
"Not in our town yet," he said. "So far, only for pets, but I do keep it human-grade, just in case."
Skeeter's Feeders accepts orders from its Facebook page and delivers within Beatrice city limits and to outlying areas for an additional fee. Ward — who was called "Skeeter" when he was growing up in Louisiana — offers live mice and rats, frozen mice_"mice cubes" he calls them_live and frozen goldfish, crickets, mealworms, superworms and, a new item that arrived by mail on Wednesday: Dubia roaches.
Ward has some big plans for the future, he said, though he's not quite ready to make those plans public yet. For now, he and his wife, Katie Ward, just revealed that they are expecting a baby daughter.
As for recommendations for what's best to feed your exotic pet, Ward said the best bet is a good variety, but you can't beat something that has a good meat-to-exoskeleton ratio.
"If I had to pick which one is the best, I would say the roaches, because they have the least amount of shell to good stuff inside," he said. "Their diet is the most varied and they have the least chance of biting. These ones are from a desert, they can't infest your home. It's just a more convenient experience."