January 12, 2009

INTERVIEW - Ladies And Gentleman, The President Of The American Tarantula Society

When it comes to appreciating the unique charms of the world's largest spiders, you can't beat the American Tarantula Society for education and advocacy. Last week I spoke to Wade Harrell (the Society's president) all about the ATS and the objects of their affection -- if you've ever wondered how to send a tarantula in the mail, or how to store a hundred of them in your home, then this is definitely an interview you aren't likely to forget!


TB: So, do you live somewhere where there are a lot of tarantulas?

WH: No, I actually live in Richmond, VA. There are no tarantulas here; in the US, tarantulas live west of the Mississippi River.

TB: How did you get involved in the ATS?

WH: I found out about the ATS from an ad in a magazine. It was probably '96 or so; I was keeping a lot of exotic pets, mostly reptiles, and I'd started getting into things like tarantulas and scorpions, and had a few of those. I became a member, and then I became a contributor, and then I started going to their conferences. Eventually I got involved with their board of directors. With that kind of group, if you sit there long enough, they'll eventually put you in a leadership position.

TB: How would you characterize the people involved in the ATS?

WH: It's all kinds of people. It's kind of like that with the exotic pets scene in general, which is a good mixture -- everyone from bikers and goth teenagers to computer geeks, families with kids, and scientists. Tarantulas aren't related to reptiles at all, but as to the people that like them, it's kind of an offshoot of the reptile hobby; most of the reptile events have people selling tarantulas there. The ATS holds our own annual conferences, pretty much the only yearly event that's devoted to tarantula enthusiasts solely -- though we do talk about scorpions and other arachnids as well.

TB: What work and/or honors come along with being the President of the ATS?

WH: When I first started I was writing articles for the magazine and stuff like that; when you get to the higher levels, a lot of it is administrative. The good parts involve trying to figure out what you want to do with a society like this. When the ATS started, there was no network for people at all, because there was no internet yet. Now people obviously get most of their information from participating in various web forums, so figuring out what the role of a society is in this new environment is very exciting. The direction we need to go in is more educational, and try to foster an appreciation for not just tarantulas and other arachnids, but nature in general. They're not just bugs in a box; we want people to think about the context in which they live their natural life.

TB: It's quite an impressive and unusual-sounding title you have. Do you get to invoke it often?

WH: Only when I'm trying to do something for the organization. Like if I'm trying to get someone to contribute materials -- we have a quarterly magazine, and I'm always trying to get people to write for it, so I tell them I'm the President of the American Tarantula Society, and once they stop laughing…

TB: How do the hobbyist and scientific contingents interact?

WH: One of the things we try to do is try and bring the scientific community and the hobbyist individuals closer together. I'd say our membership is probably 85% amateur enthusiasts and 15% people engaged in some kind of scientific work, and of those there are only a handful that work specifically with tarantulas. Unfortunately there's no money in tarantulas, they have no economic importance, aside from the people selling them for pet trade. There is some venom research going on with them. But mostly there's not much incentive to work with tarantulas right now. Hopefully there can become more interest as scientists realize how many people really do care about it.

TB: On your "So You Found A Tarantula..." page, there are instructions for shipping tarantulas to ATS for research purposes. Do people really send them to you?

WH: Well, the person who receives them Brent Hendrixson, a researcher who's active with us and contributes to our magazine. I'm not sure how many he gets a year, but it's a fair number. We try to promote what he's doing because he's doing a lot of DNA work and taxonomic work -- Even though tarantulas are large, seemingly conspicuous spiders, they're actually very poorly studied, so we're not even close to knowing even how many species are living in the United States. That's what he's trying to work on.

But I do personally receive tarantulas in the mail, and I've sent them in the mail. It's kind of a nail-biting proposition at times, because you want them to be okay... Tarantulas are surprisingly delicate animals. They can't really survive any impacts, so you have to really pack them -- in fact, you pretty much have to immobilize them. You put them inside a plastic cup and pack paper towels around them and tape it up, and then in turn have that immobilized inside a Styrofoam box so it's insulated, and then you send it express overnight. That's pretty much the standard method, but it depends… some carriers won't take them, and some will. Some will tell you that they won't, but they really will.

TB: You mean postal carriers?

WH: Yeah, it turns out the Post Office will carry live tarantulas. Periodically their policies change -- sometimes they say no live creatures at all, sometimes they'll say spiders are okay but you can't ship scorpions. There are some very strange, inconsistent rules; you can ship lizards, but not snakes or turtles. All the carriers are that way, so you have to stay on top of what the current regulations are. There's no specific law against it, it's just the policies of the shipper.

TB: Is that the kind of thing the ATS might lobby against, if laws or policies changed?

WH: We would try to be involved in that. We're not a huge organization, it's not like we have attorneys on staff that we can just send out to take care of things, so the most we could do is write letters and try to explain that there's a right way and a wrong way to do these things. It's usually nothing that singles out tarantulas specifically, mostly just blanket regulations covering all exotic pets.

TB: Are there any creatures out there that fill you with the same dread that most people usually reserve for large hairy spiders?

WH: Not really. Flies are really gross, and some of the maggot-oriented things I've witnessed in my years of working with animals were pretty disgusting. Most of the animals that bother me are the ones you'd have a pretty good reason to be bothered by -- parasites, and things like that. I'm not a big fan of mites and ticks. Just like other animals, tarantulas have mites that bother them, and getting rid of them can be a major problem. But in terms of just being creepy, there's nothing really.

TB: Are there any tarantula-themed movies that you really enjoy?

WH: Of course there's the classic Tarantula, which is kind of a silly one. But I like the earlier scenes in that movie, where the effects are done using an actual tarantula. The dog-sized tarantula in a laboratory cage is a very cool image -- they've got other animals too, like a giant rabbit, but of course it's tarantula that escapes. The movie also has an uncredited role, Clint Eastwood is actually in it as the jet pilot who napalms the tarantula.

Earth Versus the Spider is a really funny one, even lower budget than Tarantula, but they use an actual tarantula for almost all the shots in that movie. They never say explain why there's a giant tarantula, which is one of my favorite things about it. It's just there in the middle of the desert eating people for some reason.

TB: I noted that Tarantula.com is taken by some kind of media company, and they're really not doing much with it at the moment. Would you ever consider a campaign to make them surrender the name, in the name of science?

WH: That's kind of an interesting idea! [laughs] But I think that the word "tarantula" is pretty common in popular culture. And there's actually a lot of debate within the tarantula hobbyist groups over whether you should really call these spiders tarantulas or not to begin with... The original spiders that were called tarantulas were actually these kinds of wolf spiders that lived in Southern Italy; they became very famous because it was believed that they were dangerous to people, even though they weren't. And when people were describing these huge spiders from South America and other places, they started calling those tarantulas too. So now the name applies to all the large hairy spiders included in the group Theraphosidae, which is the family that tarantulas occupy today, and all those wolf spiders are in a totally different family.

TB: Is there a name that these people have proposed to be used instead?

WH: That's another thing people like to debate! Of course some scientific types say that we should reject common names altogether, and just call them Theraphosidae. In Africa they're often called baboon spiders, mainly because somebody thought their legs looked like baboon fingers when they're in a burrow with their legs sticking out of the hole. In South America they're often called bird spiders, because certain kinds can kill birds, though it occurs only rarely. In Asia there are some called earth tigers or tiger spiders, as many of them are striped, and they're often very aggressive when they're disturbed. So, there are a lot of names already out there.

TB: Do you happen to own any tarantulas now?

WH: Oh yes! I've probably got… oh, a hundred right now. A lot of them are babies -- I breed them sometimes -- so they're small, about a quarter inch across. My largest one now is about 8 inches across.

TB: I can only imagine that this takes up a lot of space… Do they have their own separate enclosures?

WH: Yes, they have to have their own cages. They don't have huge brains… they will eat each other. To a tarantula, another tarantula is just another big bug to eat. The good news is that they don't require a lot of space as individuals. The small babies live in pill vials, you know, little 3-4 oz. containers, so that's pretty easy. When they get larger, a 5-10 gallon aquarium is more than enough space for most.

TB: That seems astonishing to me, because I have three cats, and if I wake up in the middle of the night and the house is on fire, how am I going to get three cats out of the house? I can only imagine what you'd do with a hundred tarantulas...

WH: That would be tough... It's usually a good idea if you have a lot of these kinds of pets to let somebody know. There are a lot of notification things you can do; through pet stores you can purchase actual labels for all your doors that say "Please rescue my pets." Obviously, as I have a whole bunch, that would be a challenge.

TB: If you had a sticker that said "Firemen: Please rescue my hundred tarantulas," it would probably good for keeping out burglars too.

WH: [Laughs] Yes, it probably would.

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