Tarantulas, friends or foes?

Last week I made friends with a tarantula. Jane with tarantula

I’m not making it up, honest. I held a live tarantula in my two hands for several minutes, and survived to tell the tale. Richard and I were visiting Bugtopia, an unusual kind of zoo which specialises in creepy-crawlies of all sorts. From butterflies to scorpions, from centipedes to spiders, there’s a huge selection. Many of them, like the giant tropical butterflies, you can see free-range, in an enormous glasshouse full of plants; others are in cages on view in the warm jungle-type atmosphere. But the best thing, the reason we went, is that visitors can arrange to have hands-on contact with some of the creatures.

In a quiet, dim room, we were the only two visitors for a presentation by one of the zoo’s staff. She was knowledgeable and entertaining and definitely, I felt, a safe pair of hands. She brought several specimens out from their cages to meet us, starting with a couple of cockroaches, impeccably clean although in the wild they prefer dirty places where they can scavenge food remains. Then a stick insect who, unlike the sedentary specimens I remember from school, crawled up my jacket, apparently wondering if I’d make a good tree.

Jane and millipedeNext a millipede; cute and friendly; a relatively small one, who’d have made me a bracelet if she’d chosen to wind round my wrist. The largest millipedes can be as long as your forearm, and no prizes for guessing which animal has won a Guinness Book World Record for having the most legs of any creature on the planet. 750!

Tarantula close-upFinally came the tarantula. I’ll admit I was quite uneasy about this one. I remembered – do you? – that scene in the very first James Bond film, “Dr. No”, where Bond has a tarantula planted in his bed and has to lie still while it crawls up his body. But our spider turned out to be a peaceful pussy-cat. She was a Mexican Red Rump, though as she’s recently shed her skin she wasn’t showing any red. Our instructor passed her carefully to Richard, reassuring us that tarantulas don’t deserve their fearsome reputation. They do NOT kill people. Their bite is unpleasant and may be painful, but not deadly. They are reluctant to attack people anyhow, unless seriously threatened, preferring to escape if they can. If they can’t, they give a series of warning signals, lasting several minutes, indicating “Keep back, I’m a scary monster.” They rear up into a threatening position showing off their fangs; then many of them – including the one we met – follow that up by shooting off bristles from their backs towards their opponent. You wouldn’t want one in the eye, but it wouldn’t kill you, and neither would the weapon of last resort. the less-than-deadly bite.

Eventually I felt reassured enough to take our spider in my hands, watching her warily. She was as good as gold, calm, alert but barely moving. I think she was at ease. I definitely was. I felt I’d made a friend, not endured an enemy. And the whole experience was truly fascinating.

Of course, being a mystery writer, I’ve realised there’s a problem. (A fly in the ointment?) I’ve always assumed that if I ever needed a poisonous spider as a murder weapon in one of my stories, I’d just introduce a tarantula, no explanation necessary because everybody knows. Only in this case what “everybody knows” is wrong. So I’ll have to find another venomous arachnid. There seem to be several candidates: black widow spiders, brown widow ditto, Australian funnel web…how about a crime set in Sydney?

Hmmm. More research needed, I think. Though it absolutely won’t be hands-on!

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A Desk with a View

As promised, I’m bringing you the view from my office window. I work upstairs, and can look down into our back garden. And in the back garden is our new bird table. The star visitor there this summer isn’t a bird, it’s a grey squirrel. He comes almost every day to forage for bird food, and we love watching his antics.

squirrel hanging by tailsquirrel on bird tableYet if I’d posted these images four years ago, say during my last series of blogs, I’d have been committing a criminal offence and risking a £5 fine. Grey squirrels were regarded as such pests that a law of 1937 required landowners to notify the authorities if they spotted one on their land. Amazingly, this legislation was only repealed in 2014. Well, I’m safe now.

It’s a sort of game we play with our squirrel. He tries to snaffle all the bird food, and we try to stop him, which isn’t easy, because his gymnastics put Olympic athletes in the shade. Having a tail helps, of course, along with strong rodent teeth and a very persistent nature. It took a while till we found a peanut-holder that he can eat from in small amounts, but can’t bite through to pinch all the nuts in one glorious binge.

Now several people I’ve told about him have said, a touch wistfully, “Pity it’s not a red squirrel.” True, there are no red ones in our woods, or in most of Britain nowadays. Since the greys were imported (originally as exotic novelties) from the USA in the 1800s, they’ve flourished here and out-competed their red cousins. Not deliberately, but naturally, because sad to say they carry squirrelpox, a virus that doesn’t harm them, but kills the reds if they contract it. They’re also known to be destructive, stealing birds’ eggs in spring and chewing trees, sometimes destroying them.

And probably most telling, the reds are prettier than the greys, and thanks to the likes of Beatrix Potter, they’re still thought of as our “natural” squirrels, while the greys are villified as “invasive non-natives.” Emotive language in this age of globalisation. All in all, I reckon they get an unjustly bad press.

First, no-one denies greys are not native to Britain, but so what? That goes for
several other common wild creatures. Rabbits were brought here by the Romans, or if you think that’s too long ago to matter, how about wild muntjac deer, first imported from China early last century. Who cares? Should we condemn any creature simply and solely for not being a native species? I don’t believe so.

Secondly, yes, the greys do steal eggs and attack tree-bark. The reds do this too. Indeed in the 1800s red squirrels themselves were regarded as serious pests, slaughtered in their thousands in woods and forests all over the land. Now they are rare, so it’s their grey contemporaries that get killed, and it’s justified “to protect the reds.” If all the greys were killed, would that protect the forests? I don’t believe so.

So I’m happy to have a grey squirrel in our garden. He’s cute and resourceful, and he’s welcome. Am I right?

Do have your say, and don’t forget that comments posted before midnight this Thursday automatically put their posters’ names into the prize-draw hat for a free book giveaway.

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