A Spider Story

A Mexican Tarantula n’ me at the London Zoo

I’ve just spent 24 hours at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, sleeping in a tent overlooking the Sydney Harbor, taking a night tour of the lion’s den, and finally getting to see a koala, kangaroo, platypus, and tazmanian devil first-hand. It was also a chance to get very close to Australia’s enormous arachnids, many of which were hanging out on webs and walls outside of the official displays. It’s clearly the season of the golden orb weaver spider, with a leg span larger than my hand and the most beautiful, elaborate webs. They were everywhere. When we went to visit the “behind the scenes” feeding of the Orangutans (which, by the way, are also gigantic and we’re told, very strong and thus very dangerous), I saw my first huntsman spider, an extra-large, scary-looking thing that likes to scale walls and doesn’t require a web to catch its prey. These spiders are FAST. No fly or cockroach stands a chance with a huntsman around. They are also harmless, despite their menacing appearance.

Six months ago, I never would’ve been able to write so enthusiastically about spiders. Nor would I have been able to travel to Australia. For as long as I can remember, I have always been deathly afraid of spiders. It is a fear that’s commonly poked fun at and viewed with little sympathy. Those afraid of flying or sharks or heights can at least avoid all three things with minimal lifestyle changes. But no matter how many countries you cross off your travel list, or how often you avoid hanging out outdoors, it is impossible to avoid spiders. But that doesn’t mean we don’t spend our whole lives trying. 

When an arachnophobe walks into a public bathroom, the first thing we do is check the corners of the ceilings (a spider’s favorite hang-out). We refuse to sleep in the same room as a spider, and must have it promptly killed or removed (although we’ll remain traumatized hours after the spider is gone). We have a mental list of all the countries we will never visit (Australia is always at the top). We hate camping. Going into a basement or a garage is out of the question. When everyone else is relaxing at an outdoor bar or picnic, we are very uncomfortable, itchy, and looking around to make sure we’re “safe.” Because we ALWAYS see spiders. Even when you don’t. This of course sounds completely ridiculous to those free of such an irrational fear, but I can assure you that after sitting in a room with 40 fellow arachnophobes, this is some serious sh*t. 

The humiliation of panicking at the sight of a teeny-tiny spider in front of a table full of friends was always a good reminder to get my spider fear under control, but it wasn’t until a very close friend of mine gave me news of her Australian wedding plans, that I knew I had to conquer this fear. To miss a wedding due to the possibility of coming into contact with a spider surpassed even my personal allowance for ludicrous spider avoidance behavior. Fortunately I happened to be in London at the time the wedding was announced, just around my 35th birthday–for which I received a gift of the London Zoo’s “Friendly Spider Programme,” one of the very few courses for arachnophobes that promises a very high success rate. 

One summer’s morning, about 40 arachnophobes and their “support” buddies gathered in the lobby of the London Zoological Society. We were a diverse group;  mothers with daughters, burly old men, a couple of teenagers in tears, a young man who told me he was heading to the Amazon for a race and would have to sleep in the jungle for two weeks on his own. YIKES. We were led into a large auditorium, where head of the invertebrates department, Dave Clark, and hypnotist John Clifford introduced themselves and assured us that at least 85% of this group would leave cured of their fear.  Of course, no one believed them. We discussed how the fear originates (usually passed on from a terrified mother or from watching too much TV), that men are equally afraid of spiders (though they’re less afraid to admit it), why we are so afraid of them (their legs, hairy bodies, ability to appear out of nowhere), and the many shared traits of arachnophobes (here’s when we discovered that we all look into the corners of public bathrooms). Dave Clark, who was once an arachnophobe himself, pointed out that none of us mentioned being afraid of spiders because they bite, or because they’re dangerous. Or for any other rational reason. He told us stories of how people had crashed their cars due to a spider crawling on their windshield. One person, so very determinded to rid their house of spiders (an impossible task, as we know), mixed chemicals with explosives and ended up setting their house on fire. Another woman couldn’t buy vine tomatoes because the stems looked too similar to spiders. Clearly people take extreme measures to avoid spiders. 

It was when he started to speak from a spider’s perspective that I finally felt my nerves begin to settle. He explained that this irrational fear not only endangered and/ or hindered our lives, but also endangered the lives of the spiders. Spiders are for the most part harmless animals that have somehow found themselves at the wrong end of a media campaign that portrays them as evil, deadly, and terrifying. Sure there are a few spiders that are poisonous to humans, but Dave explained that even the black widow is just a shy spider that has no desire to use its venom on anything that doesn’t resemble prey. Humans are of no use to spiders, and it’s in their interest to avoid us at all costs. On the other hand, humans need spiders. They protect us from the mosquitos that carry malaria, flies, and other disease-carrying insects. Their webs too, are being studied extensively. A spider’s silk is stronger than steel, and scientists are currently trying to mimic web-production in the creation of artificial muscles, to make more efficient bullet-proof vests, in bridge-building, for medicines. The list is endless. 

At this point, I became overwhelmed with emotion. All of a sudden this terrifying creature that had plagued my life for so many years had transformed into a gentle yet important animal that I  wanted to protect. It felt like the final scene in Blade Runner, when the evil replicant reveals his humanity and vulnerability and suddenly you’re filled with sympathy and the desire to protect. It’s quite something. I could tell a few other people in the room felt the same. There were quite a few tears.

After a brief tea break, we were led into a hypnosis room, where we spent the following hour lying on the floor, guided into a meditative state and reassured that spiders are safe and that we would wake up feeling fearless. The initial state of anxiety had pretty much dissipated, but we hadn’t yet put our “fearlessness” to the test, and thus the skepticism was still quite strong. Once the zoo closed to the public, we were led into the invertebrate section of the zoo, where we were asked to observe the spiders behind glass. I had no problem doing this. I was even excited to find out how I’d feel post-hypnosis. A few of the others took a bit longer to step up to the glass, but eventually the whole group managed to approach the caged spiders with little fuss. The next step involved holding a see-through plastic box that housed a garden spider (the ones you find in your house / garden). This definitely awoke me from my dreamy state. I could feel my heart beating heavily. Holding the box meant that the spider appeared as if it was on my hand, which was a little bit too much to bear. But after watching a few others do it, I took the box, and slowly looked down at the spider sitting in the box that was sitting in my hand. I was still frightened, but awe and amazement would be more suitable descriptions.

A few tables were then laid out with boxes of garden spiders, a cup, and a sheet of paper. The spider would be let loose on the table, and we were asked to cover it with a cup, slide the paper under the cup, and return it safely to the box. Again, the thought was terrifying, but once I managed to do it, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and elation. The entire room was buzzing. No one could believe they were actually engaging with a spider.

Catch and return complete, I walked over to another table where my fellow arachnophobes were placing one hand inside the garden spider’s box and allowing it to crawl over their hand. Despite my initial hesitation yet again, there was no way I wasn’t going to do this. I placed my hand in the box, the spiders crawled over it, and back again. Then I lifted my hand out of the box and let the spider crawl between my two hands. It was one of the most exhilarating and unforgettable moments in my life. It felt like touching a buttefly’s wing, soft and feathery and extremely delicate. This was the creature that had caused me 34 years of misery? This gentle, delicate, beautiful, harmless animal? And that was it. My fear was gone. There were lines of people behind me, waiting to hold the spider for a second time, wanting to re-experience the exhilaration. It was almost addictive. 


Holding a garden spider

As a final “cherry on top,” Dave brought out a Mexican tarantula. The entire room rushed over to hold her and to take a photo as proof of conquering their fear. I wish I could’ve photographed every person in the room with the tarantula. It was a sight to see! Everyone spoke of how gentle and mellow she was. Fear wasn’t even discussed. I know this sounds cheesy, but I felt like I had witnessed a miracle. No one would’ve ever believed that I could overcome such a fear. And not only was I unafraid, but I had quickly become enamored with spiders. I read books on spiders, watched youtube videos (how cute is this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsGvT2DYJMc) , watched them build webs outside my window. Friends even send me photos of the spiders they encounter. David Attenborough’s series Life In The Undergrowth is the best I’ve seen on spiders, and is one of the rare documentaries that doesn’t espouse the typical “spiders are evil” propaganda. As the old English nursery rhyme goes, “If you wish to live and thrive, let the spiders run alive.” For any arachnophobes reading this, you can find out more about the Friendly Spider Programme here

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