By Mary Alice Hartsock, Photos by Mike Servedio
Mary Bailey says she has a “healthy respect” for tarantulas. In other words, she’s terrified. But she’s determined not to be.
Her jitters have become a favorite topic of conversation among Academy staff, and today at least 15 of her colleagues are squeezed into a narrow area behind the scenes where Bailey is about to take the plunge. With Tarantulas: Alive and Up Close taking up residence in the Special Exhibits Gallery, Bailey has decided, once and for all, to come to terms with her fear of the hairy, eight-legged beasts. Today she is going to pick up and hold a tarantula.
Bailey wants to be able to handle tarantulas herself and to move them into special enclosures for outreach lessons. During the run of the exhibit, educators are doing regular live animal shows with tarantulas, and live tarantulas are sometimes out for visitors to examine up close at the Academy’s Carts of Curiosity.
As manager of public engagement, she is in charge of all activities on the museum floor, so Bailey feels she must be as adept at handling tarantulas as her bravest staff and volunteers. As she approaches the tarantula enclosure, her wide-eyed expression is priceless, equal parts concern and tenacity. “I’m just trying to overcome my natural disinclination to touch something that scares me,” she says.
Protectively observing the scene, Academy invertebrate specialist Karen Verderame isn’t going to let anything go wrong. She is an expert at handling all kinds of invertebrates, including tarantulas, and she is giving her colleague instructions. To ensure that Bailey has a good experience, Verderame has chosen the rose-hair tarantula, which often is the first tarantula to be handled by new keepers because of its docile nature. Like other tarantulas, the rose-hair does have venom, but its venom is designed for small prey and is unlikely to severely harm a human.
Even though the rose-hair has ½-inch fangs and barbed hairs on her abdomen, Bailey isn’t really afraid of a bite or scratch. There’s something about the seemingly haphazard, confused movements of tarantulas’ appendages that makes her skin crawl. “It’s their legs … the way that they move, tip-toeing through things,” she says.
Bailey is fidgety. Her eyes crinkle as she gingerly reaches into the enclosure to touch the top of the tarantula’s mid-section. “Awful kitten,” Bailey says, laughing as the tarantula touches her hand. “This animal is so cognizant of its surroundings, and as I’m experiencing her, she’s experiencing me.”
On her second try, Bailey barely flinches, and the rose-hair crawls into her palm. She’s soft and lightweight but dense, Bailey says. She can feel the tarantula’s hooks in her palm, but in the moment she is more worried about harming this fragile beauty than she is about the spider hurting her.
The tarantula starts to walk, and Verderame gives instructions on how to use two hands to keep the tarantula safe. Bailey soon wonders out loud whether she’s ready to handle a tarantula on-the-go.
She gently returns the rose-hair to her enclosure. Now Bailey is smiling, knowing she has crossed a major barrier.
“When I am standing here holding this creature, I can feel each of her legs and how deliberate her movements are, and I am reminded how incredible evolution is,” Bailey says. “It resulted in an animal that is so foreign but so perfectly adapted to its environment that my appreciation outweighs my fear.”
“That was the last thing I was afraid of. Now I’m basically invincible.”
Tarantulas have a reputation that precedes them—terrifying, fast, hairy, scary—the biggest, baddest, and most fearsome of all spiders. In the Academy’s newest hands-on exhibit, Tarantulas: Alive and Up Close, you will come face-to-face with a stunning array of live tarantulas … fangs and all.
This article is adapted from the spring 2016 issue of Academy Frontiers.