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Bug Fights, Hot Trend

Is it evil to cheer insects killing each other?

By Carla Hartenberger 31 Mar 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Carla Hartenberger is a writer in Vancouver.

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Big sport on YouTube.

In Japan they have a word for insect geek. Kyle Benzle would not consider himself an insect otaku, but he is the creator of the latest fad to capture the attention of Internet voyeurs.

Set up in January, Benzle's website, Japanesebugfights.com, was inspired by the beetle fighting trend that has been hot in Japan and other parts of Asia for nearly a decade. The videos on his U.S.-based site feature various insects fighting other species, from hornets to millipedes, to tarantulas and scorpions.

Each round eliminates a competitor until the final victor emerges. In the 30th and final round of Benzle's video series, a camera close-up shows the locust pinning down and chewing the head off a flailing praying mantis while a frantic over-dub in Japanese heralds the champion. Benzle, who personally despises the locust, says the fierce fighting insect has always been a symbol of destruction and that "even in the Bible they hated the locust."

A swarm of critics

Out of blog postings and web forums, there has arisen a moral debate that polarizes those entertained and those appalled by the videos. For many fans, watching the latest online entertainment is a way of skirting the immorality of cock fighting or dog fighting. One site frequenter, Josh Maney, states that he would never watch wrestling, and considers pitting animals against each other "disgusting." Yet Maney has no problem with Benzle's videos because they display fights that occur organically in nature.

Another site fan is conflicted about the morality of making the videos. Blogger Kidgoku20 gambles on the tournaments. He can't take his eyes off the screen as he watches a wooly tarantula wrap its legs around a scorpion and render the shiny black body suddenly lifeless. Kidgoku20 says the fights have an "addictive quality," and writes "I think I'll be punished somehow for contributing to the inhumanity of it, but I can't help it."

He's watching the seventh round of Kyle Benzle's bug fight tournaments. Like many viewers of the new fad, Kidgoku is "simultaneously horrified and amazed," but still cannot stop watching.

Another site visitor, Alex Bit, is against the new trend, saying that the videos are still wrong, despite just showcasing bugs. Bit's opinion of the videos was changed when he watched round 24, in which a centipede and scorpion walk in circles trying to find a way out of the glass cage. The centipede touches the scorpion accidentally, causing the scorpion to sting in defense until eventually poisoning its opponent.

Bit believes it is wrong to knowingly destroy "anything with a metabolism," while Maney simply sees no problem. There are "no laws against insect fighting," declares Maney, so "fuck you, PETA."

Are you a mosquito swatter?

Benzle says he gets a lot of e-mails from viewers who say that pitting insects against each other for entertainment is just plain wrong. Benzle defends his site. The complainers, he says, are "the same people who swat flies, step on spiders, and smack a mosquito without thinking twice" -- Benzle even feels he has attained a newfound respect for "our insect friends," and will no longer squish an ant on purpose.

Benzle responds to those who view his site as cruel by stating that there were rules in place when the movies were being made. Benzle and his assistants "tried to keep the insects very happy and comfortable." He believes his team showed them respect, and took care to learn about the insects and match them according to their capabilities. For his research, he turned to a store outside of Yokohama called Reptile Zoo, and after talking extensively to Mino Tanaka, the zookeeper, learned which bugs should fight which. Most complaints Benzle has received have been about imbalanced matches and requests for "weight class measurements." He laughs off those whom he believes take the issue too seriously, saying the competitors "are just bugs."

Beetle fighting is so far the most popular insect sport, and Benzle initially considered marketing beetle videos, but came up with the new inter-species smack-down because there was too much competition. Beetle fighting is also costly. A stag beetle can sell for as much as 10 million yen ($94,210). For Benzle, producing the site's videos can still be expensive: he paid over 150,000 Yen ($1,515) for one scorpion that never made it onto the site because it refused to fight.

Pressure on species?

While he was living in Japan, Benzle saw the popularity of beetle fighting hit a new high in 2001 when the sport became a Sega videogame, Mushiking. The success of the videogame encouraged the formation of numerous teams of players, and about 20,000 official Mushiking competitions have been organized nationwide in an effort to cement the game's fan base. Articles on Mushiking in children's magazines and the sale of Mushiking merchandise, such as card stands, beetle magnets, key holders, and notebooks, have all boosted the game's popularity.

Benzle has yet to decide whether to expand his site into a franchise. He is aware of the ecological impact that can sometimes arise with trends. Beetle fighting has become so popular that some species of beetle are threatened. There have been movements to save endangered bugs: the Hercules Beetle Club of Thailand rounded up 1,000 members in support of its cause. The Japanese government has been unresponsive, however, and has recently eased restrictions on imports of 44 species of beetle.

The day of the locust

Despite the controversy, Benzle has had an overwhelmingly positive response to his site. It undeniably indulges voyeuristic bloodlust, yet whether that indulgence is morally wrong when the fighters are bugs is up to each viewer's judgment.

The videos have spread to blogs and other Internet sites where forums are open and anonymous, and viewers like Maney and Kidgoku20 can post praise at liberty for the "midair ninja strike" of the praying mantis. Bug-fighting opponent Bit does not watch the videos with such enthusiasm, and is "actually really rather depressed by it."

In the final rounds of the video series, twisted body segments and papery antennae are crushed in the jaws of competitors. Limbs are pulled like taffy out of their joints, and gummy heads are deflated against the glass confinements.

As a reward for its ultimate triumph, the winning locust was released out the studio window.

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