To Catch a Tarantula

We had a 10-gallon empty aquarium in the garage that my daughter wanted to do something with, so I added sand, aquarium rock, and seashells.  I thought it would be a good idea to have around when we caught insects and small animals that she wanted to observe before setting them free again.


The next day I was brushing down the swimming pool walls and saw something clutching the tile just above water level.  It was a lizard that sort of looked like a snake without the slithery tongue, so I scooped it up with the net and dropped it into the tank.   The snake-lizard was lively at first, scaling the glass walls, but we dropped a few crickets from our snow leopard’s stash, which calmed it down considerably.


The very next day, Olivia took a break from filming a stop motion video and wanted to hold the lizard we now called Lucy, so she picked her up and unfortunately learned yet another of life’s lessons. 
Lucy slipped out of Olivia’s hand at the first feeling of weakness.  Lucy stopped a moment at the sound of its captor’s whine, nodded its head, and plunged into freedom.  Gone forever.


Freedom was inevitable for Lucy anyway, so it was no big deal.    I’m not crazy about keeping animal life captive for an extended period of time anyway.   It always ends up in death and I don’t like blood on my hands–not even black widow juice.   Olivia, she likes to observe her captive’s life completely, yet she forgets about it, loses interest, which usually means a shorter lifespan.  Nevertheless, Lucy ended up being small game compared to our next captive.  


Last night, Olivia and I went for a swim.  We were in the hot tub warming up and decided it was time to go inside.  Olivia was first out, and after taking two steps, she screamed and fell back into the hot tub.


“TARANTULA! Oh my god, a tarantula!” She continued in this way about seven more times.  
This is ridiculous, I thought, and of course, with heart pounding, Olivia in hysterics, my eyes squinting.  I proceeded with caution.  I wasn’t wearing my glasses.   


It looked big, about the size of Olivia’s hand, and the poor creature was probably paralyzed by the girl-human’s histrionics.  There was only enough early evening light left to make out its form.  I had to get closer.  I remembered when I was growing up the classic black and white film, Tarantula.   I flanked the creature on its left, circled with caution, afraid something might shoot out of it–bristles, saliva, a sledge-hammer.   


There was no question.  It was a tarantula all right, a black one with bristles all over it.    I later read in Field Guide to the Spiders of California and the Pacific Coast States written by R.J. Adams, in late fall male tarantulas often roam the landscape in search of a female. 


“After reaching adulthood, a male spider weaves a small sheet of silk known as a sperm web, on which he deposits a drop of semen.  He then dips the tips of his palps into the semen and draws it into the emboli, which are syringe-like structures used to transfer sperm to the female.  His palps now “charged,” the male leaves the safety of his web or burrow, pursuing females by following the pheromones wafting off their webs…  During mating, the male transfers sperm either into the females’s gonopore or into her epigynum, where the sperm is stored in the spermathecae until she is ready to lay her eggs.  The sperm is released and the eggs are fertilized only when they are being deposited into the egg sacs”(10).


The empty aquarium could not have come at a better time.  My wife went for a flashlight to get a better look and I went to the garage to find something to catch it with.  I grabbed an empty box, when suddenly Lucy, the snake-lizard, appeared.  She was staring up at me.  


“No offense, little one, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” I said, tearing off a portion of the box lid.   


So there I was, bare-footed, box in one hand, card board lid in the other, trying to lift the tarantula, 4-inches away from my hand, into a cardboard box with a cardboard lid.  Meanwhile, the flashlight operator who lacks the correct skills for the job, mind you, is causing the tarantula to move in and out of darkness.   Imagine turning on and off a light switch that offers only glimpses of a large raccoon in your living room, each illumination the raccoon has moved.  I couldn’t tell if I had scooped the tarantula into the box or next to my foot.  


The girls were in hysterics, and I also started making strange noises, something that might have come from one of the Three Stooges.   The chills were electric.  


Once I captured it, I tried to drop it into a two-gallon bucket, but the tarantula had climbed vertically inside the box and managed to hold its grip onto the cardboard even upside down with no problem, so while I tried to knock the box into the bucket (think square peg-round hole), the tarantula had other plans.  I peered into the box, and the tarantula was not budging.  The last thing I wanted to do was fracture its exoskeleton.    


Finally my wife chimed in, “Why don’t you just put it in the aquarium instead of the bucket.” 


Right, yes.  Square peg-square hole.   Straight into the aquarium.  Skip a step.  Lose the panic.  That’s right.  Into the aquarium.  Straight away.


Sometimes stress has a way of rendering rational thinking ineffective.   


So after managing to capture the tarantula, I ran straight for the garage, the hairs on my legs are bristling like the tarantulas, and with as much gentleness as I can muster in the moment, I angled the box into the wide open aquarium coaxing the tarantula with the gentlest taps on one end of the box.  After a moment, Charlie the Tarantula released his grip and slid onto the soft white sand with a gentle thud.  It moved, its legs scaling the air.  It was fine.  It was alive.  I was relieved, and it was going to live. 


Olivia was euphoric.  What a find!  Something that had come from nature. 


For the conservationists out there, you’ll be happy to know we managed to keep Charlie alive for the next two weeks, and he ate very well on a steady supply of crickets and plenty of water.  After seeing Olivia lose interest in Charlie, visiting him less and less, I began the arduous task of convincing her that it was best for Charlie to get back into the wild and find his female, and perhaps live happily ever after or be killed in the process.


Needless to say, it was much easier letting him go into a nearby ravine than catching him the first time.  I still remember those chills.


By the way, we haven’t heard anything from Lucy.




While I think I am being sensitive to those who love nature like myself, in retrospect, had we caught Charlie in time, we may have filmed the battle of the century.  Imagine.  That would be like Superman versus Spiderman, in which case, compassion goes out the window and we would have watched the battle to its end.    Fortunately, I didn’t have to make that choice.

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