Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Mistress of Misfit Pets, Part 4: Spiders

If you are an arachnophobe, you might not want to read this post.

But if, like me, you are crazy about spiders, I'd love to hear YOUR misfit spider stories!

I caught my first tarantula at age 9 when we moved to Texas and there was a wooded area beside our house.  I put it in a large jar in order to observe it, and I checked out a book from the school library to learn more about it. I didn't keep this one long, and I didn't keep another spider as a "pet" until I was about 13 and found large wolf spider in my Dad's greenhouse, which I named "Wolfie."

I thought I'd sealed the mesh over the 10 gallon aquarium, but one day when I came home late from school, I looked in the aquarium to check on Wolfie, and he was missing. Then I happened to look UP and saw him clinging to the wall with his legs spread wide, making him look nearly as large as a tarantula. I panicked, thinking he was going to run off and hide in my cluttered room somewhere, making him more difficult to catch, so I asked my Dad, who had just come home, to help me catch my spider.
Wolf Spider
He must have misunderstood, because he brought in the newspaper he was reading, and before I realized what he was doing, rolled it up and SMASHED the poor wolf spider. End of Wolfie.

It was not until I had two sons that we kept more spiders, and always tarantulas. Most of them were the black ones commonly found in Texas, but one year my homeschool band students gave me a rose-haired tarantula as an "end of year teacher gift." Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that it was one of my favorite teacher gifts. Ever!
Rosie was a very handsome tarantula
Of course I named it "Rosie" and referred to it as "she." But after Rosie shed her skin, I realized it was a "he," but I didn't change his name because I remembered Roosevelt ("Rosey") Greer, the football player, who always seemed like a nice guy. Hopefully he wouldn't mind sharing a name with my spider.

The second time Rosie shed his skin, a tragedy occurred, and mostly because of me (again). He was so still I thought he'd died, and so in order to preserve his body for my biology class, I spread him out on a plastic dish to let him "dry out."
Rosie (left) after just pulling himself out of the old skin
The next morning I realized Rosie wasn't dead, he was just going into that "zone" before shedding, and now I'd moved him to a smooth plastic dish where he had no purchase to pull against the old skin. So the poor guy ended up breaking off his pedipalps, which are the small leg-like appendages near their mouth. Apparently they not only use these for finding food but for other sensory input, so poor Rosie was like a blind, drunken spider staggering around his habitat. I had to put half-dead crickets right under his fangs so he could eat. 

I hoped if I could keep him alive until he shed again, the pedipalps might grow back. But Rosie was never the same, and after several months he finally died. I felt so badly for him I sold all my critter habitats at a garage sale and determined not to keep any more tarantulas.
The pedipalps are visible to either side of the fangs
But a former student called me earlier this year and said he'd found a big tarantula on one of his landscape jobs, and did I want him? How could I say no? I even bought a brand new habitat for the spider, with a new drinking sponge and everything. (In case you didn't know, tarantulas can't "drink" water; it's cool to watch them "suck" it from a water-filled sponge just like they suck out an insect's body fluids with their fangs. Just make sure you purchase a natural sponge and don't use one from your kitchen. I accidentally killed our first tarantula because after I learned they need a sponge to drink, I cut off a piece from a "clean" kitchen sponge and we watched in amazement as the spider sank his fangs into the wet sponge and sucked for a long time. He promptly went into convulsions and flipped on his back, dead. Only then did I read the package--these sponges were already filled with cleaner! Oops!)
I didn't keep this tarantula long. He was a male and NOT happy about being cooped up inside a plastic box, no matter how many juicy crickets I gave him. So I let him go in my backyard to eat the grasshoppers. This photo shows how he felt about being in captivity. 
"Back off, lady!"
Oh, in case you ever catch a tarantula, if you'd like to know if it's male or female, just look at the front legs. A male has little "hooks" there, which are used to hold back the female's fangs while they're mating. Black widows aren't the only spiders who devour their mates.

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