Tarantulas – the Clara Barton of arachnids

Love on eight legs

Tarantulas can detach a leg, clot the wound, and grow a new one over a series of molts, but their abdomens are delicate.
  • Tarantulas can detach a leg, clot the wound, and grow a new one over a series of molts, but their abdomens are delicate.

The only pleasure I saw him take was in water. He loved fresh water.

The only pleasure I saw him take was in water. He loved fresh water.

When Santa Ana winds come, chimneys inhale and exhale like dying men. Ants churn up out of the ground like lava. Every siren is headed for a fire that is flying on a wind that is headed for your house. A scorpion dies on the kitchen floor. You find a dead rattlesnake on the driveway, its skin flayed pink by the car that just left your house, and on the porch, two feet from the door, you find a live tarantula.

The first time it was August, when male tarantulas roam. It’s the last summer of their lives, and they want females. At night they crawl and crawl. Instead of finding a female, he’d found our porch. Then the sun rose.

The tarantula kept very still while we discussed whether to kill him. There seemed, at the time, no reason not to kill him. He was a tarantula. Four of us hovered overhead, ready to defend the porch, afraid he would run forward and bite.

He didn’t move until we brought the shovel. When the shovel approached him, the tarantula crawled aboard and rode it to the grove, feeling his way along the steel. Moving his legs made him larger, more menacing, so we cut him in pieces with the sharp metal edge. When he stopped moving I was ashamed, but the ants, who followed us, were not. They ate every last bit.

Six days later, another tarantula crawled into a friend’s house across town. His kitten stalked it and his wife screamed. By then we had learned that tarantulas are “beneficials” who kill insects in the grove, and since we felt guilty about hacking the last one to death, we told this friend not to kill it. I said bravely that I planned to study it instead.

Always willing to help in our mad schemes, our friend Manuel trapped the tarantula in a bucket and brought it over to our house.

“Thank you,” I said.

I tried to look scientific. I tried to look pleased. I brought out the terrarium, which still had a hole in the screen ceiling where a wild Norwegian rat, my last specimen, had chewed his way out. I covered the hole with duct tape and dropped the tarantula in.

He made himself small all day. He huddled near the glass walls like a creature made of felt, but at dusk he began to move. He made himself large and vertical, stretching his legs higher and higher in an effort to scale the walls. How he wanted to get out, find the dirt, reach under leaves and eucalyptus bark for the burrows where females live. After we turned out the lights and went to bed, I felt sure he would cut his way out through the screen, maybe with his fangs. I’ve seen a few horror movies. I know you can’t keep evil caged and that evil isn’t something you choose but are born to be. Maybe he would, like the rat, chew a hole. Then he would crawl out of the sewing room, across the hall, through the dining room, and up to the stairs that lead to our bed. Maybe he was already on the quilt.

I lay there in the dark imagining this. I always started at the beginning, the part where he was cutting his way out of the cage. Through the mattress, the box springs, the pine floor, the light green ceiling, and the cool air of the sewing room I could feel him crawling, foot after foot, leg after leg. Before dawn, when my husband got up to go to work, I turned on the light and scanned the stairs. I tiptoed to the sewing room. I watched where I put my feet. I flipped switches until the house blazed with light.

He was still in his cage.

In a week I’d read all the finger-wagging articles. I’d put myself on a waiting list for the library’s only copy of Tarantulas and Other Arachnids: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual. I’d learned that the citizens of Taranto, Italy, had danced the tarantella to cure their melancholia, a supposed symptom of Lycosa tarantula venom. I’d learned that no one has ever died of a tarantula bite, and that in Cambodia and Laos, street vendors sell tarantula-meat satay. I knew that even Theraphosa lehlondi, the giant species of the Amazon, is trapped by little boys who wield nothing more than knotted vines and leaves. I could eat it, if I dared, but it wasn’t going to eat me. Still, every time I walked into the sewing room, I felt like someone was sticking a pencil lead into every one of my pores.

While I waited for the Complete Pet Owner's Manual I made some uninformed attempts at feeding the tarantula and discovered he wouldn’t walk an inch for dead bees. (Tarantulas are nearly blind, it turns out, and hunt by feeling the vibrations of a moving thing). Sow bugs blundered over his extended legs and lived to tell about it. A rugged darkling beetle with a broken back failed for obvious reasons. The tarantula ignored them all.

While he ignored them, he moved on legs that played a toccata. He rippled across the cage, and my skin, as though touched by his eight feet and two pedipalps and two curved spinnerets, rippled back. I called a pet store to see what he’d eat.

A guy in the reptile department said I should spread vermiculite in the cage and keep one side of it wet so the cage would have a humid climate. “Feed it twice a week,” he said, “crickets or worms.” If the tarantula was feeling insecure, he added, he probably wouldn’t eat in the daytime.

We were all feeling a little insecure. Out to the garden I went. It was evening. No bleating of crickets, not one sound. I found a snail, which at the time didn’t seem that different from a worm. We kill snails anyway. I dropped her in the lion’s den and she started to climb the wall. She made good time on her belly-foot, but he didn’t hunt her. The tarantula began to palpitate a different wall, and now that his feet were damp from the vermiculite, he kept sliding back down. I gave him one more chance at dinner, cringing as I pushed the snail off the glass and down into the vermiculite. The tarantula crawled over her as if he were stepping over a shoe. I tossed the snail far into the garden, over the grass and the wavering penstemon and the fine needles of the coast redwood.

In the end, pet ownership leads to shopping. Crickets sell for 75 cents a dozen at DJ’s Pet and Feed. You bring them home in a small brown sack. A staple keeps them from leaping all over the car, and every time you move the sack they make a sound like raindrops — pat, pat, pat-pat — against the paper. DJ told me crickets can live for about ten days, and they need a bit of moist carrot, maybe some cracker or bread, to eat while they’re waiting to be eaten.

I couldn’t think of where to put the crickets between spider-meals — I didn’t have an antechamber. I ripped open the staple and dropped them all in the cage with a piece of Gala apple (I was out of carrots) and a pinch of wheat bread. Apples, it seemed, were their favorite. The tarantula just looked irritated. He moved away from them, but it wasn’t dark yet. Who knew what would happen after dark? I decided it was a gruesome situation. A tarantula feeds by injecting a venom that dissolves the organs and tissues of its prey. If it’s eating a vertebrate like a bat, it pokes a hole in a soft place like the belly. It pumps digestive fluids into the bat, which will literally fall apart if the tarantula doesn’t bind up the body with silk. “Nothing puts meat on a tarantula like a vertebrate meal, ’’said the Complete Pet Owner's Manual If I really loved my pet, I would sometimes buy it a frozen pinkie mouse. I would give it a lizard.

I decided that procuring live food for a spider was the most disgusting thing I’d ever done, and though the tarantula was outside all night (I had taken to putting his cage on the porch so I could sleep), I dreamed of those people who eat tarantula satay, who burn off the hair before eating fat spiders, as though I had joined the food chain just above crickets.

I never saw the tarantula eat, and the sewing room started to smell like a cellar. It smelled like a tomb. It smelled like damp earth and the corner of bread gone white with mold and the dried hunks of apple and carrot that the crickets used as edible couches. It smelled like insects who died while waiting to be eaten by a tarantula. I began to believe the tarantula was losing weight and hair, especially around the joints. He still came alive at nightfall, climbing earnestly, longingly up the side of the glass, clinging there briefly, and then falling with a soft thump to the floor of the cage. When he climbed, I could see his hinges, his underside, his peculiar face, where something red, like flat fangs, moved in the suggestion of a mouth. I found his eight bad eyes, known as an eye pod. I found that he had two pompoms at the end of each leg in lieu of toes. Above the pom-poms were two retractable claws. I studied the worn place on his behind, a brown spot like a place on a teddy bear where black fleece has been rubbed away.

I stopped putting him outside at night I could sleep through the sound of his thumping falls, which I heard as clearly as Poe’s murderer heard the tell-tale heart. He began to seem like a beast instead of a monster. Still, he wasn’t a lovable beast. If the beast in Cocteau’s fairy tale had been a tarantula instead of a man-lion, if he’d had eight legs and a body like a furred tick, Beauty would never have married him. The tarantula had fur (better a furry caterpillar than a slug, a grown mouse than its pinkly fetal young, a weasel than a snake) but we prefer beasts who look like us: two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears. Hair on a tarantula only shows that he has too much of everything. Even before I’d read that the hairs are like barbed slivers, I was repelled by them because they turn one thing, a spider, into another, a spider-beast.

Besides the dank smell, the crouching beast, the pale crickets, and the withering fruit, the tank held a pair of worms. The worms had been sacrificed when the spider declined to eat the snail. Like a gloved priestess of the netherworld, I had plucked the worms from the compost pail and carried them into the room where, beneath pictures of my ancestors, the spider crouched. The worms writhed because it was still daylight. The spider jumped back, as if startled, then ignored them. The worms burrowed down into the vermiculite, which I feared would kill them if the spider didn’t. I forgot about them after I bought the crickets.

Then the worms began to surface again, about once a day, thinner all the time. Their desiccation was visible, and finally, unable to watch the dry worms thrash about (though I’d put them there to die), I put on my gloves again and reached in. I tried to save a worm as I had saved the snail, feeling that he’d been a brave gladiator and now deserved to live in nature again, where things are left more to chance. But the gloves were too big and clumsy. I couldn’t get a grip on the worm that way, and I was too afraid of the tarantula to take off the gloves. The last worm starved for 15 more days before I managed to pull him out and put him in the sweet dirt of the garden.

Meanwhile, the crickets disappeared. On Monday there were three, on Tuesday there were two, and then, Agatha Christie-like, there were none.

During the day, the beast pulled his legs in and made a picket fence of them around his head and abdomen. Tarantulas shed their exoskeletons up to four times a year when they’re growing, and I waited to see if my beast would molt. If he did, he’d have to break the exoskeleton by forcing blood out of his abdomen and then pumping it repeatedly into his limbs and the gap beneath his carapace. It sounded worse than getting Lou Ferrigno out of Bill Bixby’s clothes. The skin would stay intact, like an eight-fingered hairy glove, and the fresh spider would be soft and flexible, exhausted. Sometimes the exertion can kill a tarantula that is only half out of its old body, and reading further in the pet manual, I learned what I’d have to do if things came to such a pass. If only a few of his legs were stuck and I were the Clara Barton of arachnids, I could help him. If most of them were stuck, it was hopeless. I’d have to kill him, said the manual, by putting him in the freezer.

But my tarantula was a full-grown male, and he wasn’t going to molt anymore. He had reached the end of his life already, which for males is 10 years. Males tend to die in the fall of their maturity, while the females live for 20 more years. The only chance I had for using the medical section of my pet manual came when I found the tarantula hanging by one leg from the screened lid of the cage. His other legs were touching the glass, but he couldn’t get enough traction to climb higher, and he seemed afraid to let go. He just hung there, one tiny claw hooked like a fingernail in the screen.

This new height had been possible because I’d read that tarantulas of this species can go without food for two years but can’t go without water at all. The author recommended an ashtray full of water, but I didn’t have an ashtray. I lowered a clay saucer into the comer opposite the spider. It was the saucer that had allowed him to climb higher than he’d ever climbed and to get one of his straining feet on the rough surface of the screen. It must have seemed like victory at first.

Tarantulas can detach a leg, clot the wound, and grow a new one over a series of molts, but their abdomens are delicate, like a person’s head, and a hard fall can cause a fatal hemorrhaging of transparent blood. Still, hanging all night seemed more dangerous than falling eight inches, and if he sacrificed his leg he’d fall anyway. So I used a hat pin to release his claw from the screen, and he fell. He was subdued by the drop at first, crouching while I moved his water dish with a long screwdriver to the center of the cage, where it could no longer serve as a step stool. But he began, later on, to try again, and in the night, when everything is distorted, I imagined him hanging for hours from the screen or gripping the screen with all his claws and melting the screen with his venom until, like a welder, he had made a hole in the metal for his escape.

Instead he merely covered the sides of his glass cage with what looked like finger smears. I wanted to move him into a box and clean the glass. I wanted to replace the dirty vermiculite. The darkling beetle sat there like a lump of coal. The dead crickets were the same color and shape as vermiculite. The whole bed, in fact, might have been cricket parts. I thought the spider and I might be cheered by a good cleaning, and the manual advised me to remove dead crickets with surgical tweezers to keep the mite population down. That presumed, of course, that I could tell where the carcasses were.

Like a person who’s finally too depressed to clean, I bought food instead. I went to DJ’s for a dozen more crickets, but when I got home, I found a sack full of 30, 23 of whom flooded the cage when I upended the rattling paper bag. The beast was clearly startled. He moved away like an old man who’s suddenly found himself among screaming toddlers.

The only pleasure I saw him take was in water. He loved fresh water. He like to stick his whole head in the saucer and submerge himself. He stayed utterly still, soaking, for three to five minutes, his behind raised up on the lip of the saucer, five legs in the water and three on the old vermiculite. Then he crawled around for a while, leg over leg over leg over leg over leg over leg, as slow as tai chi in the park. He was a blind man with eight canes, and the crickets popped away from him. He was a blind man in black flannel.

One Tuesday in October, I heard a creaking noise in the spider house, where 9 crickets remained of the original 23. It was a cricket beginning to rake its wings together. In six weeks, not one cricket had made a sound. The first one did so weakly at first, without achieving a tone, but then he began to chirp, to make the high, clear noise of summer.

After that, the crickets nearly always sang. They got better at it, as though they were learning how. They seemed even to mate with each other, holding their brittle, ginger-colored wings aloft. Five of them were still living when the tarantula died.

It happened toward the end of October, when we came home from a four-day vacation to find rivers of ants flowing through cracks in the walls and doors. A Santa Ana wind had been blowing. Ants poured across the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, and down the hall. In the pantry, they merged into a black, moving, particulate tide. They were eating dog food, and the house spiders, in turn, were feasting on the conveyor belt of ants, leaving bodies like burnt crumbs in the comers, on the white baseboards, and in the windowsills. You’d think we’d been gone for years. I thought at first that the ants were moving to and from the spider cage because I had dreamed one night that he had no water and ossified from thirst. It was the only nightmare I had that was based on truth. Tarantulas move by pumping fluid into their legs, and if the fluid is gone, they can’t walk.

The ants weren’t eating the tarantula, but the tarantula was dead. The water dish was dry, like everything the hot wind had touched outside, and the crickets were singing. They rode piggy back on his corpse, which was clumped together in his sleeping crouch. I sprayed him with water, which usually made him flinch, but he didn’t move. I sprayed him again in case he was, like the Tin Man, too rusty to move. But he remained frozen there, the beads of water on his upright hairs making him beautiful and grotesque, a crystallized beast who was never going to turn into a man.

While I waited for him to wake up, I poisoned the ants with white poison chalk and the black rivers turned into dry beds and the vacuum sucked their bodies in. The tarantula didn’t revive, and when my husband buried him, he said the body felt like wet egg carton.

Six weeks later, the crickets were still alive and singing.

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