Arachnophobe or arachnophile?

Elmyra Duff has an overenthusiastic love for pets. She lacks the most basic concepts of pet care and shows her affection by chasing down animals and constricting a hug out of them. Elmyra, a character on Tiny Toons, loves all animals, especially when they are small, cute and hairy.

Over 800 species, ranging from the size of a fingernail to a dinner plate, make up a very hairy, but delicate family of animals. Some may say, they have a face only a mother can love. With a couple hundred children that is a lot of love to go around. I bet Elmyra can pick up the slack.

“I have each one in a different container, each about the size of a shoebox. All of them fit very neatly on two shelves,” Liz Thompson a naturalist explains. “I keep tarantulas because I use them for programs I do at libraries and schools. As a pet, they are interesting and take up very little space while requiring very little attention.” For more info about Liz and her programs you can visit her website at http://www.batphile.com.

She has six different species of tarantulas; Chilean Rose hair, Mexican Red Knee, Mexican Red Rump, Costa Rican Zebra, Antilles Pinktoe, and a curly hair tarantula. She has been caring for them for about five years.

“A good tarantula owner is someone who appreciates and understands them for what they are instead of buying them because of the novelty. A good tarantula owner also understands the realities of keeping tarantulas. Males can live up to five years and females up to 25,” Thompson said.

One interesting thing about tarantulas is their hunting style. Some mainly hunt in trees and others hunt on or under the ground. They move gently and slowly and appear to be cautious and stealthy at the same time. Some use a trip-wire which sends a signal to them letting them know an animal is entering their burrow. They then pounce on it, inject their digestive enzyme venom, and drink the small animal starting from the inside. Spiderman – take note, crime would be drastically reduced in NYC, if you adopt this behavior.

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The size of the spider dictates how many crickets to feed. Offering food one to two times a week should be plenty. Since most tarantulas are from tropical or subtropical regions, humidity is significant to the spider’s wellbeing.

“Humidity is important to make sure that when they molt, shed [their] exoskeleton as they grow, they do so successfully. If their environment is too dry they could have difficulty molting which could lead to damage or even death,” Thompson said.

The most common tarantula and one that is recommended for beginner tarantula owners is the Chilean Rose hair. However, “They are not beginner pets. I would recommend them for older children (with supervision) and adults. They can bite and care also needs to be taken when housing species with urticating hairs,” Thompson cautions. Urticating hairs are grown on the abdomens of some species. Tarantulas that have these hairs can use their back legs to scrape the hairs off and flick them towards predators. They could also scrap them at you as you try to clean their cage. “The hairs can cause severe irritation if they make contact with soft tissues of your nose, throat, or eyes,” Thompson explained. Elmyra Duff would not appreciate that.

If they are not cuddly and potentially harmful, why would people keep them? “Tarantulas are mainly active when they are fed and spend the rest of their time either sitting or exploring their cage environment,” Thompson said. Maybe we are envious of their lifestyle.

I believe once we get over the cultural taboo of keeping tarantulas, we will then be able to appreciate the important niche they fill. If you are an arachnophobe – a person with an abnormal fear of spiders –tarantulas may help. Their size, docile nature and predictable movements may help you rationalize your misinformed fear. Keeping a journal of their behavior, favorite food, predatory strategies, and activity response to different times of the day or temperature fluctuations will allow you to appreciate and understand your eight legged friend.

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“Most pet stores sell tarantulas these days. Pet stores also carry the supplies needed to care for tarantulas as well as the live food, crickets and mealworms, which they love to eat,” Thompson said. “If a tarantula jumps from your hand to the floor it can suffer internal injuries that will slowly kill it,” Thompson warns. “When holding a tarantula in the hand, do so over a table or other surface close to your hand. If the tarantula jumps off and only falls a few inches it should be unharmed.”

Before you know it, you will be making conscious choices not to harm spiders. Maybe this not-so-itsy-bitsy-spider will turn you from an arachnophobe to arachnophile.

Visit Critter Companions for my pet husbandry and training ideas.

One comment

  • And before anyone asks, the one in the photo is a Mexican Red Knee, the “classic” tarantula, though these days they can be quite an expensive species to buy. Generally better to start off with the Chilean Rose Hair as mentioned above.

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