Monday 1 April 2013

Little Miss Muffet and the not so Incy Wincy Spider.

Nobody believes me, but when I was five years old I saw a tarantula in my bedroom. Now, I know tarantulas are not native to the wilds of North London, but I can’t be held responsible for that. It had clearly hitched a lift in a box of bananas, or escaped from some lunatic who thought it was an appropriate pet. I may have been young. It may have been dark. But I shall refute to my dying day that it was a slightly oversized house spider, and that my imagination supplied the rest. That was a tarantula, and what’s more, it had every intention of eating me alive.

Since that day, I have been what you might accurately describe as an arachnophobe. For many years I had to wear socks in bed, as failure to do so would result in guaranteed spider nightmares. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it was.

My profound fear of all things eight-legged was assuaged somewhat in my early teens, following a crisis over the watching of the film Arachnophobia. It’s quite an involved story, but it featured a real spider, a genuine panic – during which my mother and I both removed ALL our clothes at high velocity – and the eventual capture of said spider under a glass. I was the hero of the hour and from that day on found myself capable of small-scale spider rescue operations.

HOWEVER, tarantulas still hold pole position in the Cupboard of Terror I carry in my head. Those eight fat, furry legs. Those enormous mandibles. The sheer blood lust I can see in their crazed eyes. My pulse rate rises just talking about them.

I suspect you can guess what’s coming next. Knowing how much courage it would take for me to touch a tarantula, I wanted desperately to include it in my year of challenges. It was up there with posing naked, in terms of things I knew would have a profound and powerful effect on how I viewed myself, my resolve, and my ability to conquer fears.

However, touching a tarantula was a lot easier said than done. London’s Zoo’s ‘Friendly Spider Programme’ seemed promising, but it transpired that it was focused on common house and garden spiders, plus it cost quite a lot of money. (Incidentally, the first time I tried to write ‘transpired’ I accidentally wrote ‘transpider.’) I signed up to a tarantula forum and asked if anyone could help me out. Because, obviously, I didn’t just need the spider. I needed a serious spider expert who would help me, show me what to do, and make sure that both the tarantula and I were safe. The reaction from tarantula owners worldwide was surprisingly violent. Tarantulas were showpieces, and shouldn’t be handled. It was suggested that I should “think of something creative to do, instead of molesting innocent animals.” I’m not going to lie, comments like this made me angry. Surely it’s a good thing if people who are terrified of spiders can educate themselves and learn not to be so afraid? Plus, who said anything about ‘molesting?’ I just wanted to see if I could touch one, very gently, and very momentarily. I didn’t want to have dinner and a movie with the damned thing. But no one was willing to help me, and I came very close to giving up the whole idea. It made me nauseous just contemplating it anyway.

Then, the other day, I want to the garden centre down the road from mum’s, to buy her a mother’s day plant. And what did they have in the pet section? Two Rose Tarantulas. Right there, a pane of glass away. My heart rate soared as I stared at them. They were totally still, but as I watched a small cricket walk nonchalantly past one of them, unaware of the mortal danger it was in, I genuinely believed that I might be sick. I held my breath, waiting for a pounce that never came, the hairs on the back of my neck standing alarmingly to attention. The spider was clearly not hungry at that precise moment, but I had really worked myself up. There was no way in hell I was touching one of those things. They radiated malevolence. 

Then I made a crucial error. After presenting her with a very large Marguerite, I TOLD MY MUM ABOUT THE TARANTULAS. What was I thinking?? This is the woman who, during that viewing of Arachnophobia, sent me out of the room over every set of adverts to test my nerve. This is the woman who flatly refused to believe that there had been a killer tarantula in my bedroom. THIS IS A WOMAN OF NO MERCY. The next day we got back in the car and drove to the garden centre.

Why am I here? How can this be happening?
Sweet, glorious relief. The man attending the pet section of the garden centre explained that he had no experience with spiders. He was more of a puppy man. People who come to purchase tarantulas generally know what they’re doing, and don’t require the assistance of staff to pick them up. The manager, Jana, might be able to help, but she wasn’t working over the weekend. Reprieve. Two days later, mum called up the shop and asked to talk to Jana.

Jana said that though she herself did not handle the spiders, she would be happy to open up the terrarium for me and see if I could put my hand inside. Great. We fixed a time and date a couple of days later, when she predicted the shop would be quiet. I was in for it now.

I spent the next two days trying to normalise the idea by watching YouTube videos under the search heading: ‘how to handle a tarantula.’  Thankfully, these proved significantly more helpful that the forum. Although all tarantula owners and lovers clearly acknowledge that one should avoid over-handling Ts, many of them had also taken it upon themselves to explain how this could be done safely and with absolute respect for the animal. Because of course, if you own one, it will sometimes be necessary to move it from one place to another. And, clearly, a lot of T owners take great pleasure in interacting with their spiders. Weirdos. (Just kidding. Not kidding.)

I found helpful tips in a lot of videos, but this was perhaps the most useful of all, because the guy made it seem so simple and straightforward.

This was less helpful, because of the sheer size of the beast, and the terrible speed at which it moves.

And this one made me pretty embarrassed, because this little girl is EIGHT YEARS OLD and playing with a tarantula like it was a fluffy little kitten.

Mum's notice board. Note three challenges, three days in a row!

So, I endured an hour and a half of spider handling videos, and by the end was almost as drenched in sweat as I am halfway through a Bikram yoga class. But hey-ho, I had normalised as much as I possibly could. I confess that I had serious doubts about my ability to touch a tarantula, but I had a lot more knowledge about how to do it so that it was safe for the animal. Despite my fear, I had no desire to cause any harm.

The appointed day arrived, and off we went, back to the garden centre. We found Jana tidying shelves. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “You’re here about the tarantula?” And as she said it, I kid you not, she gave a visible shudder. It was perfectly clear that she had been thinking about us over the last two days, and had been hoping against hope that we wouldn’t turn up. “I fill their water with a large bottle” she said, “and I tip the crickets in. But I’ve never touched them. I don’t know if I could.” Which is, I confess, not exactly what I wanted to hear. Normalisation went out the window, heart rate went through the roof, mum laughed.

I was escorted backstage, to where the tarantula enclosures could be accessed. First problem: All the videos I had seen showed the spider being gently scooped up from above. But this terrarium opened from the side, so that I would be on the same level as the spider, not above it. This meant, of course, that if it decided to make a run for me, I might not be able to escape in time. Add a few notches to that pulse.

Tarantula touching kit. Glove and straw
Jana removed the glass panels at the back of the enclosure. Spiders have tiny hairs on the abdomen, which they shed as a defence mechanism. These tiny hairs embed themselves in the skin and cause irritation. If they are inadvertently transferred to the eyes, they can do serious damage. So, since this spider was completely unused to being handled, I was advised to wear a surgical glove to protect my skin. This I did most willingly, as I’m sure you can imagine.

I had brought along a straw, since my YouTube teachers had explained that it is wise to very gently alert the spider to your presence before endeavouring to touch it. That way, if it is hungry or in a bad mood, it will bite the straw. I can assure you that if that spider had bitten my straw there was no way I was putting my fingers anywhere near it. Alas, the spider did not bite the straw. In fact, it stayed eerily still. I was quite sure it was plotting homicide. I tapped it again, very gently, and it bolted alarmingly towards me. I jumped about a foot in the air, and several feet backwards. So did Jana. The next time I put the straw in the terrarium, it was shaking like Shakira. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I said. “Just take your time,” said Jana. “Do everything very slowly and gently. The spider doesn’t want to hurt you. Just let her know you’re there.”

Jana was fantastic. Despite the fact that she was clearly a little afraid herself, she talked me calmly and encouragingly through the next 20-30 minutes (I confess, time lost all meaning.) Slowly, slowly, I introduced my hand and forearm into the spider’s space. Several times it bolted for one corner or another, clearly just as frightened of me as I was of it, but eventually it seemed to relax. I breathed deeply, and employed a little self-hypnosis, gradually feeling my heart rate reduce. It wasn’t normal, but it was under control. As the spider relaxed, so did I. Sort of. A little bit. Gently, gently, I laid my palm flat in front of the tarantula. (Since there is photo evidence of this I may as well confess that I had applied a rather heftier glove over the surgical one, and that Jana had very kindly tucked in my sleeve.)

Softly, I touched its back legs with the straw. It made a sudden movement, but I left my hand where it was. Progress. Emboldened, I touched it again, at the same time gently sliding my hand forward. Suddenly, I wanted very, very badly, for the tarantula to walk onto my hand. “Come one little one,” I willed it. “Come on.” And, one leg at a time, the spider came. 

A face of absolute concentration and significant fear. And that's just the T.

It walked slowly forward, and when it was fully on my palm, I lifted it a few centimetres into the air. I brought my other hand close, and allowed it to walk tentatively from right to left. My heart was racing again, but this time it wasn’t just in fear. I was exhilarated too. 

And you know what? I LIKED that bloody spider. I didn’t want to kiss it or take it home, you understand, but I felt so grateful to it, for allowing me this enormous privilege. I drew it carefully out of the glass enclosure for the benefit of a photograph, and then let it gently return home. I was on top of the world.

The T looks kinda small here, but that's just a trick of the camera. I'm telling you, it was GINORMOUS.
Jana gave me a huge hug. In the end, perhaps the fact that she was a little afraid herself made me stronger. Or perhaps it was mum’s silent encouragement as she waited patiently with the camera, willing me onwards. Or, most likely, it was a combination of these things, along with a hefty pinch of sheer grit, and the knowledge that I would regret it forever if I chickened out.

I feel fantastic. OK, I didn’t manage to touch the tarantula with my bare hand. I think it would take a LOT more exposure – and a very confident expert - for me to go that far. But I know that I conquered a few demons today, and that I felt true admiration for a creature that had, up until that moment, inspired in me nothing but terror. Without a doubt, one of the most rewarding challenges to date.

Kiss the spider!

Twenty-six  down, four to go…


  1. Very, very well done JoJo. You know how some people are like their dogs - well one or two of those spider people you connected with on the forums sound distinctly arachnid, don't they? Don't feel bad about the gloves - human skin sends a lot of wild creatures a bit loopy. I speak as someone who was once a loopy spider fancier, as a child. Hopefully I didn't grow up to be too arachnid. Well done again...

  2. A little bit of extra information: JoJo loved the spider, really. She even named her. This tarantula is called Rosaura !