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Know the West

Have you hugged your tarantula lately?


We live in the Tucson Mountains. Our house sits on the saddle of a low hill with an arroyo on either side. It did not occur to us when we built the house many years ago that the hill on which we built undoubtedly served as a place of refuge when the arroyos became torrential rivers. And so, without knowing it, we built a shelter for more than ourselves. It seems as though desert creatures must have a universal communication network. When a storm is approaching, I think they must drop all predatory inclinations. I can imagine the spiders telling the toads who tell the lizards who tell the snakes who tell the rats who tell the squirrels who tell the rabbits, "Arriba! Arriba! Vamos a la casa."

And they come. Walking, running, hopping, and crawling, they come. Spiders of all denominations, shiny or shaggy, large or small. Iridescent beetles. Toads the size of salad plates. The little banner-tailed kangaroo rat and the big rock squirrel, whose front end is gray while his rear end is brown. And many kinds of snakes, mostly harmless, but some dragging their little noisemakers behind them. Some stay only until the storm is over, but others move in for more extended periods. In their attempts to stay in the house or in the courtyard just outside the kitchen door, some are incredibly, pathetically persistent. None more so than the tarantula.

I have a considerable affection for tarantulas. They are the victims not only of our aversion to spiders, but of a very bad press which portrays them as quite different creatures than they are. The mythic, and I'm afraid still predominant, view of tarantulas seems to have originated in southern Italy, in the seaport of Taranto, whose citizens, between the 15th and the 17th centuries, were visited with repeated epidemics of a strange disease that created frenzy. This came to be known as tarantism and was thought to result from the bite of a tarantula. From this comes the name of a somewhat frenzied folk dance, the tarantella. Evidently the spider was named after the town, the disease was named after the spider, and the dance was named after the disease. But at the bottom of all this, the spider was innocent. I don't think we know what really caused tarantism. Perhaps it was just a particularly potent wine in the stomachs of some volatile Italians with a natural tendency for body language. At any rate, the tarantula took the rap and has henceforth been thought to be a sinister, even deadly, creature.

But the tarantula is not significantly dangerous to humans. It almost never bites, even when tormented; and if it does, its bite is no more potent than the sting of a bee. It is true that the sexual practices of the female tarantula will not hold up to the close scrutiny of a moralist, but as far as I'm concerned, sexual practices are inexplicable throughout the entire phylogenetic scale, and let those without sin get out their stones. Tarantulas are somewhat large and hairy, to be sure, but less so than many other creatures we choose as pets. In fact, tarantulas make excellent pets if they are given the full run of the house in order to find sufficient food.

So I have a considerable fondness for tarantulas, but my wife does not share this feeling. While she allows some varieties of large spiders to remain in the house and even refers to them as my "friends," she draws the line at tarantulas. I have explained to her that tarantulas are quiet, well-behaved house guests who pay for their lodging by eating flies and small insects. I have told her that they eat ticks, which are troublesome to our dogs, although I am not absolutely sure this is true. I have even hinted that a few tarantulas around the house would have a tendency to cut down on the number of other long-staying guests, including relatives. When she said she was afraid of stepping on a tarantula while she was barefooted, I told her that the possibility was very remote because they usually climb up the walls. This did not seem to comfort her very much. My wife is resolute. No tarantulas!

Consequently, when a tarantula lumbers in, lifting one leg at a time and lowering it with great care and deliberation, I am expected to put it out. But tarantulas are also resolute, and persistent. I have put the same tarantula out as many as five times in one evening, each time placing it farther from the house. And each time it would laboriously turn itself around and head back for the open door from which it had just been ejected, like a stray dog who has adopted a new home and will not be discouraged. On its third or fourth entry, it will even begin to take on some of the mannerisms of a stray dog unsure of welcome - tentative, cringing a little, trying to be inconspicuous. But a tarantula crossing the kitchen floor with its slow, stately, inexorable walk has difficulty being inconspicuous, and my wife notices it every time. Several times I have managed to keep one hidden for a day or two, but eventually it grows bold and strikes out across the floor or up a wall, and as soon as my wife sees it, expulsion is inevitable.

Tarantulas probably come in the house to avoid summer storms, but they are also attracted to light. I once thought that this was because light attracts some of the small insects on which they feed, but perhaps they are attracted to light for its own sake or for some reason we do not understand. Edmund C. Jaeger in his book Desert Wildlife tells about camping in the Sonoran Desert with two companions and being visited by a "number of tarantulas, which seemed to be attracted by the firelight. They rapidly approached the fire, then suddenly about-faced when they felt the heat. Time and again they returned, only to repeat the withdrawal." Jaeger also mentions their astonishing longevity, which has been documented. Some female tarantulas live for 25 years.

Richard Shelton is the author of Going Back to Bisbee, from which this excerpt was taken. The book was published in 1992 by the University of Arizona Press.