Last week I made friends with a tarantula.
I’m not making it up, honest. I held a live tarantula in my two hands for several minutes, and survived to tell the tale. Richard and I were visiting Bugtopia, an unusual kind of zoo which specialises in creepy-crawlies of all sorts. From butterflies to scorpions, from centipedes to spiders, there’s a huge selection. Many of them, like the giant tropical butterflies, you can see free-range, in an enormous glasshouse full of plants; others are in cages on view in the warm jungle-type atmosphere. But the best thing, the reason we went, is that visitors can arrange to have hands-on contact with some of the creatures.
In a quiet, dim room, we were the only two visitors for a presentation by one of the zoo’s staff. She was knowledgeable and entertaining and definitely, I felt, a safe pair of hands. She brought several specimens out from their cages to meet us, starting with a couple of cockroaches, impeccably clean although in the wild they prefer dirty places where they can scavenge food remains. Then a stick insect who, unlike the sedentary specimens I remember from school, crawled up my jacket, apparently wondering if I’d make a good tree.
Next a millipede; cute and friendly; a relatively small one, who’d have made me a bracelet if she’d chosen to wind round my wrist. The largest millipedes can be as long as your forearm, and no prizes for guessing which animal has won a Guinness Book World Record for having the most legs of any creature on the planet. 750!
Finally came the tarantula. I’ll admit I was quite uneasy about this one. I remembered – do you? – that scene in the very first James Bond film, “Dr. No”, where Bond has a tarantula planted in his bed and has to lie still while it crawls up his body. But our spider turned out to be a peaceful pussy-cat. She was a Mexican Red Rump, though as she’s recently shed her skin she wasn’t showing any red. Our instructor passed her carefully to Richard, reassuring us that tarantulas don’t deserve their fearsome reputation. They do NOT kill people. Their bite is unpleasant and may be painful, but not deadly. They are reluctant to attack people anyhow, unless seriously threatened, preferring to escape if they can. If they can’t, they give a series of warning signals, lasting several minutes, indicating “Keep back, I’m a scary monster.” They rear up into a threatening position showing off their fangs; then many of them – including the one we met – follow that up by shooting off bristles from their backs towards their opponent. You wouldn’t want one in the eye, but it wouldn’t kill you, and neither would the weapon of last resort. the less-than-deadly bite.
Eventually I felt reassured enough to take our spider in my hands, watching her warily. She was as good as gold, calm, alert but barely moving. I think she was at ease. I definitely was. I felt I’d made a friend, not endured an enemy. And the whole experience was truly fascinating.
Of course, being a mystery writer, I’ve realised there’s a problem. (A fly in the ointment?) I’ve always assumed that if I ever needed a poisonous spider as a murder weapon in one of my stories, I’d just introduce a tarantula, no explanation necessary because everybody knows. Only in this case what “everybody knows” is wrong. So I’ll have to find another venomous arachnid. There seem to be several candidates: black widow spiders, brown widow ditto, Australian funnel web…how about a crime set in Sydney?
Hmmm. More research needed, I think. Though it absolutely won’t be hands-on!