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by Whit Gibbons

August 25, 2013

Disclaimer: Virtually all U.S. spiders have fangs and venom, although most are too small to deliver a bite to humans. Below, I mention two incidents in which people pick up large spiders, but I am not recommending anyone handle spiders of whatever size.

My grandson Parker is captivated by spiders. Like snakes and sharks, spiders induce a range of emotions from deep-seated fear and loathing to intense interest and fascination. I used to dread them, to a point approaching arachnophobia, the deep, irrational fear of spiders. Now I think they are fantastic. I did not get over my fear of spiders until I was in college, several decades ago, during a memorable encounter with one in the wild. Parker has already accomplished this first step in elementary school. His appreciation of these eight-legged animals is now tending toward arachnophilia.

Most spiders are exquisite creatures; they get a bad rap from a few troublemakers. Even so, threats to humans from the black widow and brown recluse are vastly overrated, although either could potentially deliver a serious bite. According to the entomology department at the University of California, Riverside, despite all the hoopla surrounding the brown recluse, there is still not one proven human death due to a brown recluse bite. Likewise, I am not aware of the confirmed death of a single healthy person bitten by a black widow. Nonetheless, when a friend called recently to ask what he should do with one that had built a web on his doorknob, my advice was to "remove it from the premises."

Rather than viewing spiders as hazardous, we should welcome them as heralds of environmental health. Spiders are top carnivores. So when spiders are thriving, plants and animals lower on the food chain must also be doing well. Spiders are a sign that at least some portion of the ecosystem is operating properly.

My coming to terms with spiders came when I turned over a rock while on a field trip to the Southwest. An enormous, black, furry Texas brown tarantula began crawling out. These spiders are actually large enough to eat small mice. But they do not ordinarily bite people, and a colleague said, "Pick it up. It won't hurt you and may help you lose your fear of spiders." With an adrenaline rush akin to leaving the airplane on a skydive or having the opening line in the school play, I let the spider crawl onto my hand, which it was the size of. It walked up my arm to my shoulder, and I retrieved it with my other hand. My friend was right. I have not been afraid of spiders since, neither small nor large.

In fact, I really like spiders. Therefore, I consider it a good sign when a question about arachnids refers to a "beautiful spider." Or when a neighbor wants me to see her "pet spider on the breakfast room window." The black and yellow garden spider's web, fully two feet across and covering the window, could not have been better placed for an all-day gladiator show from inside the house. These wonderful creatures build the quintessential spider web of concentric circles with spokes from the center. They and their webs are indeed quite beautiful.

People who accept, or better yet appreciate, spiders have what I consider a healthy enthusiasm for the natural world. I'm not sure why anyone would want to get rid of a spider that is not inside the house. If you watch them carefully you will soon see that a fascinating group of animals lives right in your neighborhood.

I'm not suggesting you go around picking up spiders, regardless of whether you are afraid of them, although that tactic did work for me. Last week, I watched Parker pick up a gigantic wolf spider and let it scamper across his hand. In the field of arachnology, he is clearly way ahead of where I was at his age, and I am unlikely to catch up.

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