A pilot program has been launched in England to take blood samples from animals in zoos not with plastic syringes but with live, bloodsucking insects known as a kissing bugs.

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You may feel a slight pinch…

As many of our zoo keeper readers can tell you, taking blood samples from animals in zoos can be a very stressful and complicated undertaking, often involving sedating the captive creatures. Through the new program first reported by the BBC and being tested now at the London and Whipsnade zoos, the keepers are…

…using kissing bugs to do their work for them. The kissing bugs are raised in a sterile environment and “administered” to the zoo animals during feeding time.

“It might take somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes to get a decent sample dependent on how hungry the bug is, how quickly it finds a blood capillary and how thick the skin of its host is,” veterinary officer Tim Bouts told BBC. Am I the only one furiously scratching myself right now as if I”m being eaten by kissing bugs? Thanks BBC! What’s that you say? You’re not scratching your body viciously like a meth addict right now? Fair enough. Maybe you should try reading this account of kissing bugs by Charles Darwin. That should do the trick:

“We crossed the Luxan, which is a river of considerable size, though its course towards the sea-coast is very imperfectly known: it is even doubtful whether, in passing over the plains, it is not evaporated and lost. We slept in the village of Luxan, which is a small place surrounded by gardens, and forms the most southern cultivated district in the Province of Mendoza; it is five leagues south of the capital. At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood, and in this state are easily crushed. One which I caught at Iquique, (for they are found in Chile and Peru,) was very empty. When placed on a table, and though surrounded by people, if a finger was presented, the bold insect would immediately protrude its sucker, make a charge, and if allowed, draw blood. No pain was caused by the wound. It was curious to watch its body during the act of sucking, as in less than ten minutes it changed from being as flat as a wafer to a globular form. This one feast, for which the benchuca was indebted to one of the officers, kept it fat during four whole months; but, after the first fortnight, it was quite ready to have another suck.” — Note: Luxan is Luján de Cuyo.

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Vets take a blood sample from a manatee at a Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.

Kissing bugs administer a “pain reducing enzyme” as they bite their prey, so the animals do not seem to feel anything. Once the samples have been collected the bugs are then humanely killed and the blood is harvested by the keepers. The animals don’t go through the stress of sedation; the keepers get their blood without the hassle; and the kissing bugs get one last meal before their are systematically murdered and disemboweled. I just don’t see a downside for any of the parties involved.


  1. #1 Pat K.
    June 16, 2008

    And so the helpless insects give their short, dull life over to a larger animal so as not to stress it out? Hmmm, not sure I like that. Oh wait. The insects are not as cute as baby seals so they won�t be missed. Humans–sometimes I scratch my head in wonder that we made it this far. How about we Get Dracula in there instead? At least it would cut down on vampire bites in the night. ;0

  2. #2 milkshake
    June 16, 2008

    I wonder how soon bed bugs could be harnessed in the hospitals – to better handle those patients with substandard coverage…

  3. #3 Kevin H
    June 16, 2008

    Hmm, death of almost certainly non-self-aware insect to protect large, almost certainly self-aware animals, and reduce costs allowing zoos to do more with their funds. Yeah, I’m cool with that.

  4. #4 Julia
    June 16, 2008

    I wouldn’t have said it’s about cuteness – it’s about awareness/intelligence/sensitivity – which I’m certain the animals have more of than these insects – and rarity. Again, I’d say the larger animals are kind of more vulnerable than the insects. This seems really sensible.

  5. #5 Kevin
    June 16, 2008

    Pat – Your right to keep that it mind, but also keep some balance and perspective too. After all, the point of using the kissing bugs is to take a blood sample to test for, say, an infection by some other yet smaller bug (or an even smaller bacteria or virus) in the bloodstream, and then kill those ones (by the millions or billions!). So its important to recognize that, while we try to be humane, nature is often really inescapably a vast bloodbath of violence pretty much all the time. Evolution tells us so.

  6. #6 Joshua Murphy
    June 16, 2008

    What Pat said, but the opposite.

  7. #7 Jess -aka littlebunny-
    June 17, 2008

    i wonder how they plan on killing an insect humanely…

  8. #8 Jenbug
    June 17, 2008

    Wow, I’ve been to that zoo (Lowry Park) and I’ve seen that manatee!

    Also, what an interesting (albeit controversial for all the insect enthusiasts) method for drawing a blood sample. I wonder if they’d ever consider this for humans?

  9. #9 Pat
    June 17, 2008

    Kevin, Thanks for your well-thought out answer. My answer was shot from the hip. Usually not my best bet. I just hate for anything to die. I even usher flies out of my house, and spiders are totally welcomed to stay, as long as they do their job. (Yes, I know, their job is to kill and eat bugs. GO FIGURE!) All is well.

  10. #10 Sheri Williamson
    June 18, 2008

    Normally I’d be right there with you on the whole live-and-let-live philosophy, Pat, except that in this case I’m the prey. These stealthy little bloodsuckers (they’re far from helpless) invade our desert home every summer, and our policy is to take no prisoners. The bites are initially painless but can cause serious reactions, even life-threatening anaphylaxis, in sensitized individuals. For more, check out The Kissing Bug Project at the University of Arizona

  11. #11 Jon H
    June 24, 2008

    “i wonder how they plan on killing an insect humanely…”


  12. #12 Andrew
    June 25, 2008

    boot heels

  13. #13 Guy Buckley
    April 5, 2009

    Hi Benjamin,

    A great picture of a kissing bug. I am looking for a kissing bug for my own web site (www.spookyweb, in construction)and wondered if it would be alright to use this photo?? I would include a link to this page …

    Guy (guybuckley@yahoo.com)

  14. #14 dance
    June 19, 2009

    How great a feeling of great wonder to touch the wonder of water in it is good to dance

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