Just because you kill something doesn't mean you have to hate it.

Say, for instance, you made your living by poisoning cockroaches. A student of pest control, you knew the roaches' habits, their desires and their bodies. You set out boric acid baits, which shriveled their exoskeletons and ruined their digestive functions so they starved to death. More roaches, you knew, would die after cannibalizing the carcasses of others. You learned the science of murder.

Would you be a hypocrite to keep a cage of hissing Madagascar cockroaches, each as big as a big man's thumb, in your dining room or at your workplace, and feed them Puppy Chow? You might occasionally cup a roach in your hand and stroke its back so it emitted the hiss of a tiny cat. You might bring children in to see the roaches, along with a tarantula, a fat corn snake and a brood of other unwanted beings.

The parents would shriek at this leper caste of creatures, but the children would crowd toward the cages with untainted curiosity and, yes, admiration.

If this is a tale of hypocrisy, it is also about the sanctity of life. And it is certainly about the sometimes-wrenching distinctions humans make when we--in our self-described role as Masters of the Universe--decide who lives and who dies.

Also, it is about the obligatory gross details. Like the sight of big spiders suspended in tiny jars filled with alcohol. And the fact that roaches, well, they eat each other's waste.

Come on! Shed that disgust like a too-small cicada shell. Step into the bug zoo.

A Freak Show With Love

The short walk from your parking space to the strip-mall store is chilly. Hardly the season for bugs.

But inside Cindy and Barry Robinson's Bug Box in Occoquan, everyone is warm and snug. The geckos (not quite insects, but it hardly matters) curl up on the undersides of their cages to soak up the generosity of heat lamps. The roaches--which scramble happily on each other's heads without regard for what we humans stiffly term "personal space"--are occasionally misted with water.

It costs $2 per child to enter the bug zoo. For a year now, Cindy Robinson, 47, has run this entomological headquarters down the hall from her husband's extermination company. She brings children in for educational tours, and sometimes brings select insects to schools. A former men's clothing retailer, Cindy conceived of this zoo, she says, when she realized how much people fear insects. It's not bad marketing for her husband's company, either.

The one-room space is a freak show of feared creatures. But there is love here, too.

Many residents have names: Cleo, the red-tailed boa constrictor, who eats live mice. Fred, a python. Pinky the Pinktoe tarantula.

Others come and go too quickly for names. There is a giant centipede just finishing its meal of a cricket, and giant African millipedes as big as small snakes. The black widow's cage is a chaotic graveyard of dead flies and mulch suspended in a web. There are scorpions, Australian walking sticks as big as your hand, and praying mantises that keep guard over egg cases that look like tiny undersea sponges.

And, of course, there are roaches. The hissing ones, and the giant flying ones known as palmetto bugs. "The kids can hold these," says Barry Robinson, 46. "They're not dirty."

Rachel Parson, 27, who works at the zoo, takes out a giant hissing one and holds it lovingly. "See, look at him. This is his face."

A Double Standard?

Is it hypocrisy? You judge.

There are bugs that Barry Robinson will kill and bugs he won't kill. Cockroaches, ants, silverfish, termites, crickets, fleas, moths--they all get death. But that's where he draws the line.

People call to complain about ladybugs. Barry won't kill them because they're beneficial.

"They get upset at us 'cause we won't go out and nuke 'em," he says.

What an irony, the Robinsons say. People move to the outer limits of the burbs in their quest for the ideal acreage and enough trees to block them from their neighbors' view. Then they get hysterical when they find nature's many-legged evidence.

Oh, Cindy and Barry can tell you stories. The hysterical housewife who called claiming an inch-long spider was as big as her hand. The hefty man standing on top of his dining room table because he saw a snakeskin in his house. One lady beseeched Barry to tell her why termites and carpenter ants had moved into her house.

Barry told her: "In reality, you moved into theirs."

But the Washington suburbs are hardly the only place you see insects and humans fighting for the same land. The eminent naturalist Edward O. Wilson estimates that 27,000 species disappear from the planet each year, mainly from tropical rain forests. Of these, scientists say, a considerable majority are insects.

The Robinsons say children learn to hate insects from their parents.

"They may go in and squash that bug just because it's a bug," Barry says.

"Just because," says Cindy, her voice plaintive, "just because they can."

Here, even the dead are cared for. Their bodies are saved and mounted on cotton.

But there is also a harsh reality. For even as Cindy saves bugs, Barry has killed them for over half of his lifetime. For five years he has run AAA Pest Pros, which funds the upkeep of the insect zoo. His wife's efforts don't seem to have made him attached to insects, but they have opened his eyes to a shrewd business tactic. Down the hall from the zoo, he keeps preparations for murder: monitors, traps, baits.

"You gotta do something to take care of them in the home," Barry says. "There is no Pied Piper of pest control."

Never mind that the business Barry is in has changed its name three times to reflect a more tolerant, live-and-let-live-but-not-in-my-house sensibility. "Extermination" became "Pest Control" became "Pest Management." He and Cindy--as well as pest control companies and scientists--distinguish between "beneficial" insects and "pests" on the very subjective basis of how they affect human beings.

When the roaches die, their bodies are not mounted in cotton beds. They are left to be eaten by relatives.

The double standard discomfitted Parson when she first started working at the bug zoo this summer. She grew up among animals and insects in a rural area, and has a master's degree in science education. Her affection for insects is as natural to her as man-loves-dog.

At a fair the zoo held this fall, a local man was cooking bugs and serving them. While Cindy, Barry and others partook of the novelty, Parson found the whole thing troubling. Somehow, eating insects seemed like a betrayal. She is, in some sense, like the children whom Barry and Cindy yearn to reach. She never learned to fear.

"She's very sensitive," Cindy says.

Parson is quiet. Her hands are cupped around a cockroach that, for once, has stopped hissing, and has settled into the expanse of her palms like an infant in a blanket.

CAPTION: A millipede curls up defensively after being carried from its cage at the Bug Box in Occoquan.

CAPTION: Bug Box owners Cindy and Barry Robinson in the insect zoo, down the hall from Barry's exterminating business.