Step right up to Dr. Entomo's

Call it the tarantula test.

In a small, colorful room in the OC Fair & Event Center's Memorial Gardens this summer, visitors can test their squeamishness by having Rosie walk along their skin. It's a delicate sensation — large spiders are light steppers, and people who press their hands flat on the table may have to worry about a tickle more than a bite.

Still, they have to press their hands flat first. The officials who run Dr. Entomo's Palace of Exotic Wonders know that many humans have an impulsive reaction to spiders, and steadiness on the table may prevent a hand from inadvertently jerking back and sending Rosie flying.

That interactive section of Dr. Entomo's may sound like fodder for a dare — have a hairy tarantula crawl on you! — but it actually has a disarming purpose. The Memorial Gardens exhibit, which displays live spiders, scorpions and more, aims to educate visitors about the true nature of crawlers, namely that they're more likely to rid the house of other bugs than they are to bite the homeowner.

"You have some kids who come in and love it, and some kids automatically are afraid," said exhibit supervisor Rachelle Weir, who contributed to the menagerie herself when she found a centipede scaling the wall of her house. "Part of the exhibit, though, is to help teach people that bugs are friendly and they actually provide a service for us."

That service, at least at the fair, can be entertainment too. The Dr. Entomo's exhibit is set up in circus style, with a banner over the front door, carriages on the lawn and old-fashioned signage around the room trumpeting the displays.

One section is structured as a prison, with live insects in cells behind glass with "rap sheets" indicating what humans suspect of them. Others feature the stages of a beetle's life arranged in a sarcophagus-like case, a collection of insects that camouflage themselves in nature and even a cupboard of bug-based foods.

While Rosie and the other touchable insects debuted at the OC Fair, the encased ones came with the traveling show, which is put on by Minnesota-based Outhouse Exhibit Services and stopped in Balboa Park earlier this year. This summer marks the exhibit's first appearance at the fair.

Co-owner Mia Schillace Nelson, who has sent the show on tour up to three times a year since 2007, called it a popular attraction for families — with kids often urging their parents to view the bugs up close, rather than the other way around.

"What we've found is that grown-ups come just because their kid is very interested in bugs," she said. "So they swallow their fear to take their kid to the exhibit."

Joan Hamill, the fair's community relations director, said she hasn't heard a scream yet at the displays, though some people have walked through quickly. If one of the enclosed critters, which include a spider capable of eating a bird, managed to escape through the glass, she can imagine the reaction.

"I think there would be a lot of panic," Hamill said. "But I think the biggest panic would be, you know, some of these aren't indigenous to this area, so you'd be introducing another species to this area. And that's not great."

If You Go

What: Dr. Entomo's Palace of Exotic Wonders

Where: OC Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Noon to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Cost: Free with fair admission ($11 general, $8 for seniors 60 and older, $6 for children 6 to 12, free for children 5 and under)

Information: (714) 708-1500 or http://www.ocfair.com

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