STILLWATER, Okla. (April 12, 2018) – When Shelby Counterman was just a toddler, she asked her parents if she could have a pet. While they may have been thinking she wanted the traditional cat, dog or even a guinea pig, Shelby had an entirely different type of pet in mind.
She wanted cockroaches. Yes, cockroaches. You know, those creatures that cause most homeowners to call the exterminator or reach for the can of bug spray at first sight.
While her request was a little out of the ordinary, Meg Counterman wasn’t really all that surprised. That’s because Shelby wasn’t your ordinary toddler.
Meg, Shelby’s mom, was told during her pregnancy that the baby was not viable. But Shelby proved to everyone she was a fighter even before she got here. And now, at 11 years old, she continues to amaze the world.
“She’s had medical issues her whole life, but she’s always been my little miracle,” Meg said. “She’s always been remarkably strong.”
Shelby has neurofibromatosis and had to wear a brace on her left leg from the time she was 18 months old until just last year. Her spine is curved but is much better now following a spinal fusion surgery last year at Shriner’s Hospital in St. Louis.
“The roaches are my friends,” Shelby said. “Sometimes when I’m sad or when I don’t feel good, they help cheer me up. I was in a lot of pain before my spinal fusion and had trouble breathing, but my roaches made me feel better.”
Although Meg wasn’t a fan of having roaches in her home to begin with, she recalled some sage advice from a friend who told her that parents can’t instill their own fears and prejudices into their children. And the rest, as they say, is history. What started with just a few roaches when Shelby was 3 years old is now a 4-H project with roaches numbering about 7,000.
When you walk into Shelby’s bedroom at her home in Claremore, it’s obviously a girl’s room, with lots of pastel colors, a dollhouse and a variety of stuffed animals. But along the wall at the foot of her bed is a shelving unit that holds multiple plastic containers. In those containers she keeps some her beloved cockroach pets. Other roaches are kept in large plastic bins in another room of the house. Her bearded dragon, Boomerang, and Sandy the leopard gecko, call the family room their home. At the head of her bed is a glass tank that contains her corn snake. Despite the bright colors, it isn’t your typical pre-teen girl’s bedroom.
Some of the roaches she raises are food for her reptile pets. When asked how she feels about feeding her roach pets to her reptile pets, she simply replied, “I’m good with it.” She also raises roaches to sell to Safari’s Sanctuary in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, for their reptiles. Some of the money she earns through her cockroach project goes into her college savings account and some she uses to reinvest in her project.
Shelby currently has about 16 varieties of roaches, including Madagascar hissing cockroaches and Argentinian wood cockroaches. She also has more traditional pets in the canine and feline categories.
Not only are the roaches her pets, Shelby also incorporates them into her 4-H citizenship project. She is a member of the TLC 4-H Club in Rogers County, where she not only is active in the entomology project, but also sewing and gardening. In fact, she has combined her sewing and entomology projects by making clothes for her roaches, including costumes such as a bee, mermaid, spider, chicken, lady bug and a tuxedo and has even had a fashion show.
“My favorite thing about raising roaches is teaching people that bugs are important. They’re important to our ecosystem,” Shelby said. “Most people don’t know it, but roaches are cleaner than your dog.”
Her love of sharing her knowledge was never more evident than it was following her spinal fusion surgery last year. From her hospital bed she was teaching other patients about cockroaches.
“Two weeks after her surgery she gave a presentation to about 300 kids,” said Meg. “This just goes to show her strength of character. I’ve learned so much from her.”
Erica Calhoun is Shelby’s 4-H educator with the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension in Rogers County. Although she hasn’t been on the job very long, Calhoun said Shelby was one of the first people she met after starting work.
“Shelby is just awesome. She’s super involved in 4-H and very knowledgeable,” Calhoun said. “She loves to share her knowledge. She definitely is a unique 4-H’er and has such a passion to learn and share.”
Calhoun said one of the neatest things about Shelby and her project is she’s so knowledgeable and just loves to share with the other 4-H’ers.
“Not only is her project unique, but the passion she has to teach others is so special,” she said. “She takes her project in so many different directions and she intrigues her fellow club members.”
Shelby keeps track of all her cockroach project work in her 4-H record book. She also keeps a notebook full of interesting facts on all the varieties of roaches she has. She said she’s drawn to cockroaches because of how unique and special they are.
One of Shelby’s favorite things about sharing her cockroach project with others is how their perception changes from the beginning of her lesson to the end.
“I really like teaching about roaches and telling people how they shouldn’t be worried about most bugs because only a few are bad,” she said. “I also like that how most of the kids are afraid of them when I start teaching about them, but by the end of the presentation they’re holding them. I think that’s cool.”
So, while some people may still be a little skittish when it comes to cockroaches, Shelby is helping enlighten the world that cockroaches can make good pets and can make a big difference in the world of an 11-year-old 4-H’er.
Be sure to check out more of Shelby’s story May 5 on the television program SUNUP, which airs on local OETA stations Saturday mornings at 7:30 a.m. and Sunday mornings at 6 a.m.
Story by Trisha Gedon