Nov. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Preuss employee awaits word on breaking cockroach-in-mouth record

Sean Murphy doesn’t hesitate to put a live cockroach in his mouth. After all, one isn’t much compared to the 16 he crammed in a few weeks ago while attempting to break the world record for the greatest number of live Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches held in the mouth at one time.

Murphy, 27, has worked at Preuss Pets in Lansing’s Old Town for three and a half years. Last week, he showed me the pet store’s collection of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches while discussing his recent feat, a stunt he pulled for a Halloween party at Preuss. “A lot of people said they threw up or felt like throwing up when they were watching it,” he said. “It’s because of the stigma people have of cockroaches. When you think of cockroaches, you think of dirty, nasty infected places.”

Preuss Pets owner Rick Preuss said those in attendance responded with “a sense of gasp and astonishment.”

Although Murphy admits he was some what leery of some of Preuss’s creepier pets at first (he cites 12-inch centipedes and an earthworm-like amphibian called a caecilian as examples), he said Preuss’s cockroaches are clean and disease free, and it “wasn’t a bad experience.” He did clean them off beforehand, and, although he wasn’t as disgusted as some observers, he did vomit once during a practice, when a cockroach tried to crawl down his throat.

Given a chance to handle a few of the cockroaches that may have been in Murphy’s mouth just a few weeks before, it’s clear that they’re not much like the slimy, cringe-worthy bugs of their reputation. Clean, low maintenance and quiet other than the occasional hissing sound for which they are named, Murphy said they make good pets, particularly for children or as learning tools for teachers.

He said the roaches responded pretty well to being packed into his mouth, and by the time he got more a few in, they seemed to settle down and almost be comfortable. “I spit them up, and they all just went back about their business and crawled around,” Murphy said. “Some of them were caked in spit, so I’m pretty sure they weren’t happy about that.”

The previous world record for putting cockroaches in the mouth was held by Travis Fessler, of Kentucky, who set the record with 11, beating the previous record of nine. The rules were that they had to be held in the mouth for 10 seconds, and that they all had to be over two and a half inches long. Murphy said many of the cockroaches he put in his mouth were closer to three or three and a half inches.

His record still stands as unofficial, but Murphy expects to hear back from the people at the Guinness Book of World Records soon about whether the stunt qualified as an official world record. He said there’s a chance they will respond with different rules than Murphy followed, and if that’s the case, he said he’s more than willing to do it again.

Murphy has received media attention from across the country for his feat, including radio appearances on shows based as far away as Seattle and Miami. He has been interested to see the reactions of the public, whether supportive or disgusted.

“I’ve been called a lot of names because of it, especially online,” he said. “I’ll look on message boards or on the YouTube video and see what people are saying about me. It’s like, you don’t know my situation; you don’t know why I did it.”

Even Murphy’s brother told him it was stupid before the stunt, but after seeing all the media attention, he thought it was cool and joked that he would be his manager.

“As far as a publicity event, I thought it was brilliant on his part,” Preuss said. “I have no anxieties about them or social stigma, so it was more or less, ‘If you can break a world record by putting harmless insects in your mouth, why not?’”

Murphy said that he’s always been involved with music in various bands, but when he got the job at Preuss, it gave him a new direction in his life, and now he’s interested in being a zookeeper someday. For now, he has the menagerie of pets at Preuss and his 20 some pets at home, and of course, his growing fame. “Some of my friends get attention for being in bands or whatever, and I’m just the cockroach guy,” he said.