We’re standing in the “Authorized Personnel Only” room in Bug World at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, surrounded by hundreds of bugs in containers big and small, waiting to see if I’ll freak out.
I’m a little afraid of spiders. Not to the point where I’m terrified to be in the same room as them (I used to be!), but I definitely get nervous when there’s one close by. I think about how creepy they feel, and how gross it is to walk into a web, and that escalates to being sure that I’ll get bitten.
It’s irrational. But that’s what fear does. It takes the smallest possibility of reality and turns it into a horrible scene from a bad sci-fi or fantasy monster movie, where the spiders are three times bigger than a car and attack people as food.
So, because of this media-induced fear, during the 31 Days of Everyday Adventure challenge, when it comes time to do the activity that says, “Make plans to do the thing you’re afraid of,” I think of spiders.
Despite my fear, Bug World is one of my favorite exhibits at the zoo. They have lots of interesting information, plenty of weird bugs to look at. In general, bugs are pretty cool when they’re not being scary, but I’m starting to feel nervous about the animal encounter I’m about to have.
I’ve always enjoyed looking through the window into the “Authorized Personnel Only” area because the entomologist zookeepers are in there counting bug babies, feeding them, and moving all these strange bugs from container to container. One time, someone in the room put some of the small insects onto his side of the window so all of us “Non-Authorized Personnel” could see them up close, which was pretty cool.
So I’ve definitely been geeking out since going through the room’s two-door entry (it keeps bugs from escaping). I’m now the person on the other side of this window, looking at the bugs up close and (only halfway) hoping that I can hold the tarantula.
You have to start somewhere
Erin, the entomologist, teaches me a little bit about spiders, all the while assessing to see how nervous I am.
If I’d been super terrified, Erin says she would’ve eased into things by teaching me the bug’s body parts and having me draw a spider. That’s right. Draw. For the first time, I realize that even my earlier, more intense fear of spiders was nothing compared to what some people experience. It’s never caused me anxiety to draw a spider. I’m suddenly really grateful, and feeling brave by comparison.
That is, I feel brave until Erin shows me the spider moltings they have, one from a small tarantula and another that they have framed and displayed in the window (from a much, much larger tarantula). One of the first things she mentions is the fangs.
I’d been telling myself spiders don’t have fangs, that’s just in movies, only the really mean, poisonous, exotic spiders have fangs… and then I see the size of the fangs on this exoskeleton and suddenly I’m convinced I’m going to get bitten when the real tarantula comes out.
Thankfully, I learn all about the other parts too, so I’m distracted for a bit. I learn that spiders’ eyes are more toward the tops of their heads than I’d thought, and that they molt even their eye coverings with the rest of the exoskeleton.
Erin points out other parts on the exoskeleton. We can also see a place for the sucking stomach, which the spider uses to draw the liquids it eats through to its digestive system. I also learn that tarantulas have “book lungs.” The air goes in near these folded sections of tissue (they look like pages of a book), and oxygen is taken into the blood through the tiny vessels close to the surface of these folds.
When Erin tests me to see if I’ve been paying attention, I’m able to answer all her spider anatomy questions correctly. That means we can go on to the next thing: the real spider.
The part where I touch a tarantula!
This tarantula is an Ambassador Animal at the zoo, which means she (it’s a she, not an it) often interacts with people for educational purposes. (She has a name too, but I have to be honest, I’m not really listening because I’m nervous!)
Erin won’t let me hold her, which by this time, I’m okay with. Tarantulas are fragile and if I were to freak out and drop it, it could seriously injure the spider. So Erin holds it and tells me I’m able to pet the tarantula.
Yup. Pet it. Like a puppy.
In fact… it feels like a puppy.
The small hairs all over the tarantula’s body aren’t stiff and prickly like I’d thought they’d be. Instead, they’re actually very soft.
The weird/semi-scary thing about touching it is that I can see the fangs and the pedipalps (the two little short arm-like projections near the fangs) moving when I put my finger near her head (like it’s trying to eat me!). When I touch the spider’s foot (at Erin’s prompting), little hooks on the foot grab my skin like Velcro. I have to move my finger toward her mouth in order to unhook the foot from my finger.
While we watch it, the spider releases silk from the spinnerets, and I’m surprised to see that it’s coming out in many strands at once (instead of one single strand). Erin tells me that while all spiders spin silk, they don’t all make webs, because webs are for catching food.
Tarantulas, for example, don’t use their silk to catch prey. They use it to protect themselves from the ground (they lay down a layer of silk over the ground where they’re sleeping), and to warn them of prey or predators coming toward them (they feel the vibrations in the silk around them).
Remembering that spiders are animals may help people feel less fear, Erin says. According to her, the bigger spiders are less scary for many people, because they’re big enough for us to see their body parts, which makes them look more animal-like, and less small and mysterious.
I agree that being around this big spider is less scary than the smaller house spiders, because I can see what it’s doing. The one exception is the dagger-like fangs that are bigger (and scarier) the bigger the spider is!
What to do if you find a spider in your home
If you do find a spider in your home, Erin says to ignore it, or if you must do something, it’s okay to relocate it – but she encourages you to only take it a few steps outside, so that the spider can find its way back if it wants. And it likely will, because indoor spiders won’t survive outdoors. However, according to Erin, “they’ll probably just come back and hide in a corner and won’t bother you.”
It’s really common to find spiders in your bathtub or sink, especially in the fall and winter. Erin tells me these are probably male spiders that crawled in to find water, and then found the sides too slippery to be able to get out again. If you want to be kind to spiders (and reduce the number of times you’re surprised by them), you can drape a bath towel over the edge of the tub so the spiders have something to grip and can climb out.
Glad that’s over!
After she puts the tarantula back in its cage to rest, Erin shows me lots of other bugs too. I get to hold some of them, like the Peruvian Firestick, a bug with bright red joints that makes me think of something that could’ve been in Harry Potter (with a name like that, can’t you see some bug that bursts into flames or something?).
When my spider encounter is done and I’m getting ready to leave, I spot a tiny baby spider hanging down from the ceiling. Instinctively, I walk a giant circle around it so it doesn’t touch me (so much for fearlessness). Erin tries not to smile and calmly puts it on the side of a container.
It’s not until we exit the Authorized Personnel Only room that I exhale fully. Apparently, I’ve been half-holding my breath the entire time, definitely more anxious than I was letting myself admit.
But I didn’t freak out. And I learned a lot. I’m not completely over my fear, but that wasn’t the point. I faced it and survived, and my comfort zone got just a little bit bigger. And that’s really what it’s all about, right?
Special thank you to the Gigi and Erin at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle for helping with this experience! I’ve been a paying member for several years, which comes with unlimited yearly admission, but the zoo provided me with free parking for this special visit. All opinions are my own. Click here to learn more about the Woodland Park Zoo.
Want to do the 31 Days of Everyday Adventure challenge? (You don’t have to touch spiders, it’s customizable). Click here to learn more and sign up.