As one who nervously eyes any spider the size of a penny, I found coming face-to-face with the mammoth animatronic Chinese Earth Tiger Spider at Brookfield Zoo's new "Xtreme BUGS" exhibit to be surprisingly pleasant.
In fact, the spider -- with its beady black eyes and waving hairy electronic legs -- looked rather sweet, like a 6-foot-tall Muppet tarantula.
"Xtreme BUGS"When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends from Saturday, May 19, through Friday, Sept. 7
Where: Brookfield Zoo, 1st Avenue and 31st Street, Brookfield
Price: $3-$5 admission to "Xtreme BUGS" exhibit, in addition to the $10.50-$15 general zoo admission. Children younger than 2 admitted free. Discounted combo tickets can be purchased at participating Dominick's stores for $10.80 for kids ages 3-11 and seniors 65 and older, and $16 for adults. Parking costs $10.
Information: (708) 688-8000 or czs.org
The spider is one of 22 oversized creatures that are mechanically springing to life this spring and summer at the zoo. "Xtreme BUGS" features everything from a brown centipede rotating its mandibles in hunger as it turns its giant head to a monster-sized European Honey Bee pollinating an even-bigger purple flower.
Nearby, ants attack an African Fat-Tailed Scorpion. And a seven-spotted ladybug -- the size of a small pony -- sits in the sunshine.
Along with the large insects, another 130 creatures and plants dot the exhibit's habitat areas.
"Xtreme BUGS," which opens on Saturday, May 19, is meant to bring humans closer to our "buggy" neighbors, said Andre Copeland, interpretive programs manager at the Chicago Zoological Society.
"Many people have an instinctive fear of bugs. But we want people to walk out of here with a new appreciation for bugs and for the role that bugs play in our everyday lives," Copeland said.
He cited ladybugs controlling pests in crops, honeybees pollinating crops and the strong, silky webs of golden orb spiders being used for medical research as examples of some of the many ways insects affect our lives.
"Bugs are part of our culture. Look at the faces of aliens in our movies -- they often resemble bugs. Or in literature, there are insects in 'James and the Giant Peach' and 'Charlotte's Web.' And how about Spiderman or the Green Hornet?" Copeland said.
As visitors wander on the path through the exhibit's nature scenes, educational signs offer carefully chosen "Xtreme" facts about each creature. Guests can use smartphones to scan QR codes on the signs for access to the zoo's mobile website for videos and other insect information.
The insects, with their metal frameworks and polyfoam bodies (and other "secret" components, Copeland said), feature state-of-the-art animatronics that were designed exclusively for Brookfield Zoo.
"This has never been done anyplace else before," Copeland said excitedly of the exhibit.
As part of "Xtreme BUGS," a 5,000-square-foot tent houses "Harry's Big Adventure: My Bug World," presented by Terminix. Here, visitors can explore the insect world with high-definition videos, art projects and live creatures. Kids can crawl into a termite tunnel and don hard hats to conduct a home inspection for live cockroaches.
Katie Wassmer of Archer Malmo Public Relations worked with Terminix to prepare "Harry's Big Adventure." She said that after people watch some of the exhibit's vivid bug videos, they often say, "I didn't realize just how pretty they really are."
On weekends, "Xtreme BUGS" guests can take in hissing cockroach races and sample chef-created bug delicacies, like six-legged salsa, crispy Cajun crickets and "Red Beans and yikes!"
Zack Lemann, an entomologist and one of the exhibit's visiting "bug chefs," said he will be whipping up bug specialties containing mealworms, wax worms and crickets (with butter and seasonings). Lemann advises anyone with a shellfish allergy to avoid the bug treats.
Eating insects is common practice in many countries of the world, said Lemann, who has cooked bugs on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." (Leno declined actually eating any.)
"Insects are good for nutrition -- they have a lot of iron and niacin and calcium," Lemann said. "And a lot of people like the taste of them."