Tarantulas: one woman’s appreciation
One of the best things about Arizona’s monsoon season is the way the threat of flooded burrows sends tarantulas scrambling to the surface. It’s one of the joys of summer.
My first tarantula encounter happened years ago in the coolness of a Sonora Desert morning. Beneath the granite bulk of Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains, someone placed one of these shy and gentle arachnids in my open hand. It was love at first touch.
Think about it: What woman wouldn’t love a hairy-legged creature that can outlive a male by about fifteen years? Males, alas, once they reach their prime, only get one chance to mate with a female, and those that don’t become their partner’s bedtime snack after mating die naturally within a matter of weeks.
Arachnaphobics—and there are many—fail to share my arachnafondness. That’s why I make an effort to move tarantulas to safer ground whenever they wander into unfriendly territory. My most dramatic rescue occurred in front of a restaurant in Sedona, Arizona. Clouds that had been promising rain all week finally delivered. Some friends and I were waiting under an awning for a break in the downpour when a big female tarantula scuttled from behind a bench. She headed straight for the busy parking lot.
The odds were against her making it across the sea of wet pavement, so I lowered my arm to offer her a living on-ramp. She gingerly climbed aboard. When I stepped back inside the restaurant and calmly asked for a to-go box, my newfound friend scrambled across my shoulders.
The cashier and a handful of customers in the front stared with their mouths open. Some recoiled. I thought to myself, They think I’m with a freak of nature. Or maybe they thought I was a little weird myself, though I did get my to-go box.
When the deluge stopped, I drove the tarantula, now placidly resting in a clear-plastic salad container, to a remote area high in the red rocks. She stepped out of her box and hightailed it to higher ground.
Tarantulas have always been misunderstood. Most are gentle, with one very notable exception: the Goliath bird-eating tarantula of South America. It has a ten-inch leg span and a well-documented mean streak, and it really does swallow birds. Arizona boasts about thirty kinds of tarantula, and although the spiders sport venomous fangs, they rarely use them except under extreme provocation. Even then, the tarantula is more likely to use another defense: hair flicking. It flings tiny, irritating hairs from its abdomen at the skin or eyes of the offender. Think itching powder. If you ever find a tarantula with a bald spot on the abdomen, you’ll know it has had to defend itself.
Hollywood has done this creature a disservice. The B-rated horror flicks often show a tarantula, deposited by an evildoer in someone’s sleeping chambers, creeping slowly across the bed to the intended "victim." Moviemakers got one thing right: the tarantula does prefer to hunt at night. Otherwise, unless you are an insect or a bird in South America, the tarantula has little desire for an encounter.
The real horror story involves a tarantula’s daily trials. Did you know they are prey as well as predator? Raccoons, coyotes, skunks, and other mammals enjoy the occasional tarantula tartare. It gets worse. Tarantulas are the targeted food source for the
tarantula hawk wasp. This large wasp finds a tarantula unlucky enough to be aboveground and stings it with its own paralyzing venom. Then it drags the immobilized spider to the nearest hole, stuffs the spider down it and lays its eggs in it. The newly hatched larvae eat the twitching, still-alive tarantula slowly, from the inside out. Talk about your fresh meat.
But there are human beings who appreciate these gentle spiders. A couple of years ago, for instance, I was being ticketed for a faulty taillight below the ruins of Tuzigoot National Monument in Arizona. I waited on the unpaved shoulder of the road, grumbling to myself about my luck and the station wagon that had let me down. When the polite young police officer handed me my ticket, he added an unexpected warning: "Don’t step backwards, ma’am, or you might squash that tarantula on the ground there behind you." He pointed with his eighteen-inch-long flashlight, and as he did, the spider’s shadow extended to exaggerated proportions.
My mood changed abruptly. I accepted my ticket and beamed back at the officer with new appreciation: A spiderman.
Terri Likens is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is also fond of the snakes, lizards, and bats in Cottonwood, Arizona.
USPS drive to help animal groups
From September 21 through 27 the U.S. Postal Service, with Watermelon Mountain Ranch acting as coordinator, is putting on a special event to benefit private animal-rescue groups throughout the Albuquerque area, including individual-breed rescue groups, of which Sandoval County has many.
Animal supply donations will be collected by the post office and transported to a warehouse where the enrolled groups can come to pick up whatever they need.
WMMR is asking for people to help load, unload, and sort the donated items. They also need trucks, large trailers, and drivers. School groups are welcome to volunteer. If you are interested in helping out or donating items, please contact them at 771-0140 and indicate you are calling to help with the Animal Rescue Groups’ Post Office Drive.