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Drawn to Bugs Like Moths to Flame : Entomologist Has Sense of Humor to Go With His Job

December 22, 1985|ROBIN DUNITZ | Dunitz is a Los Angeles writer. and

Steve Kutcher is a fanatic about bugs. He collects them, teaches about them, shares his house with them, worries about their future and even gets paid to put them in the movies.

"I'm unusual," he said. "I just happened to take two things and put them together. One was the knowledge I had in entomology (he has a master's degree in insect behavior from Cal State Long Beach). The other part was I like to make people laugh, and I enjoy learning about creativity. And I'm kind of a ham.

"I've been on radio, TV, and in the movies," Kutcher said. Since 1979 he has talked about beetles and spiders on "Those Amazing Animals," been recognized on "Real People" for identifying 10,000 flies, and appeared on "Kids Are People Too" and the "Channel 2 News."

He's also worked as a consultant on several Hollywood projects. In "Exorcist II" he put 3,000 African locusts on the faces of Richard Burton, Linda Blair and James Earl Jones. He contributed 40,000 carpenter ants to a 1978 segment of "Wonder Woman." And he has just finished putting wasps on Farrah Fawcett for a not-yet-released film called "Extremities."

"One of my hardest movie jobs was to make a cockroach run across the floor for a foot and then flip over on its back," he said. "I didn't train it but I figured out how to do it. Those are the kinds of challenges I really enjoy."

Wedding Stunt

Recently he released 1,000 butterflies at a wedding at the Bel-Air Hotel. "I hired eight people, and in three and a half hours the nine of us caught 1,100 butterflies."

When you enter Kutcher's small Pasadena home, it quickly becomes obvious an insect enthusiast lives there. The living room belongs as much to the "insect zoo" as it does to Kutcher and his wife, Laurie. Stacked like bookends atop his shelves full of bug books are dozens of boxes containing live grasshoppers, five or six kinds of tarantulas, beetles, a praying mantis, black widow spiders, caterpillars and more. On a card table in the middle of the room sits a quietly humming beehive, loaded with bees. Nearby, an aquarium tank is home to several guppies.

In one corner of the room a roughly built loft has become the Kutchers' bedroom. What once was the bedroom is now known as the "Bug Room," full of display cases holding mounted butterflies and beetles. Research notes and articles are stacked in precarious piles above an inaccessible desk.

Even the kitchen has been drawn into service. For six weeks 30 live monarch butterflies have resided in the refrigerator, as a way to slow down their development.

"I feel fine about living with the bugs, but I would prefer they have more of their own place and not infiltrate all over," said Laurie Clark Kutcher, a teacher at Pacific Ackworth Friends School in Temple City.

Always Loved Animals

She has always loved animals, and enjoyed picking up beetles and caterpillars even before she met Steve. She not only accepts her husband's life style, but enjoys participating in bug projects too. Not long ago she learned how to handle a tarantula for a video.

"I usually keep a couple of little plastic vials in the glove compartment of my car, and sometimes in my purse. Sometimes the kids at school will find a cricket or a caterpillar."

Steve Kutcher's interest in bugs started at a young age. "My earliest memories are of collecting fire flies when I was 4 or 5 years old in New York. I always liked nature and being outdoors. And it was a good way to keep relatives off my back. If they came to pinch my cheeks, I could always pull out my spiders."

He has always found it hard to understand why so many people are scared of creatures a quarter of an inch long or even smaller. "I took a 300-pound tiger for a walk this year, and the whole time my heart was pounding. That's what I think of when people tell me they're afraid of bugs. They don't know what real fear is!"

Kutcher, 41, teaches biology classes at Glendale and West L.A. Colleges and frequently visits schools and nature centers.

During a recent visit to the Eagle Rock Elementary School Gifted Center, he had 31 fifth- and sixth-graders mesmerized for more than an hour.

"Beetles are the most numerous type of insect," Kutcher informed the class as he got out a box full of the critters. "One out of every eight living animals is a beetle."

Star Attraction

The star attraction that day was his big furry tarantula. Amid excited whispers and gasps, he held it in his hand for all to see. Later he let each person shake hands with it.

Hoping to dispel any misconceptions about why most bugs bite, Kutcher explained: "The tarantula only bites its prey (for food), or for defense. No way could a tarantula see us as food. It would be like us going into MacDonald's and ordering a whale for lunch. Not even in a week could we eat a whole whale."

He tries to spend as much time as possible educating people about the value of bugs. He worries that as the human community expands, the destruction of wildlife habitat is threatening all kinds of animals.

"What people don't realize is that insects are near the bottom of the food chain. Other animals, like birds and fish, feed on them. People say you'll never get rid of the insects, but what you can do is diminish the variety of different species. This in turn will lessen the kinds of larger animals we have to enjoy."

According to Kutcher it won't be insects that will outlast everyone--not even the resilient cockroach--"I think cement and asphalt are going to inherit the earth."

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