Recently, I sat down to write an article about some of the divisive, hot-button topics that dog the tarantula hobby and often ensnare uninitiated keepers in heated debates. These are subjects that new hobbyists are often interested in learning about, but an internet search or an innocent forum query produces two equally heated and opposing answers. My hope with this feature is to present both sides of these gray-area arguments so that keepers can develop their own informed opinions and make equally informed decisions. For the second installment, I’ve decided to tackle the “explosive” topic of tarantula handling.
I’ve mentioned many times in various posts and videos that when I bought my first tarantula 20 years ago, it was partially to get over my fear of spiders. I had arachnophobia since I could remember, and I was hoping that by keeping, observing, and eventually handling my new G. porteri, I could overcome what I perceived to be an irrational and embarrassing fear. I thought that by holding this animal without freaking out, I would prove to myself that I had finally overcome my phobia.
However, my fear of these animals, however ridiculous, proved a bit more difficult to conquer. After keeping this tarantula for about six years, my first attempt at handling her almost resulted in a bite (and in me passing out) as she attacked the brush I was trying to prod her with. Although I had read for years that “rosies” were a gentle species that enjoyed being handled, my inexperience with testing temperament coupled with my specimen’s excellent feeding response nearly resulted in both of us getting injured. After all, my reflex would have been to pull my hand away, likely launching my pet into the air and to her death.
So, for years I endured ribbing from friends and family who couldn’t understand why I kept an animal that I was afraid to handle. After all, wasn’t the point of keeping tarantulas to hold them?
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the answer to this question is an emphatic NO.
Please take a moment to participate in the poll above. Thanks!
When I got serious into the hobby, I was actually surprised to discover the topic of handling was such a hot-button issue. I just assumed everyone held their tarantulas and that it was a big part of the hobby. However, after reading several message board debates on this topic, I soon learned that many saw handling as an outdated remnant of the hobby’s beginnings when the market was filled with mostly docile New World species. Many “serious” hobbyist were vehemently against this practice, labeling those who chose hands-on interactions with their pets as irresponsible and reckless. There was talk about stressing the animals, putting the keeper and animal at risk, and even more frightening, possibly putting the very hobby at risk if a bad bite should make it to the news. They argued that tarantulas should be treated the same way one might approach keeping tropical fish; you can look, but don’t touch.
Instead of folks being ridiculed for not having the courage to handle a big, hairy spider, people were being admonished for handling their animals.
Of course, not all agreed with this sentiment. There were those on the other side of the proverbial fence, seasoned keepers and newbies alike, who thought that this alarmist attitude was ridiculous. Many have reported years of handling experience without incident, and some ridicule the hobbyists who label the practice as potentially hobby-killing. These folks argue that, if done responsibly and intelligently, handling can harmless habit that only enhances a keeper’s enjoyment of his or her pets.
So, which side is correct? Should it be up to the keeper as to whether or not to engage in this seemingly harmless practice, or are those against it correct in labeling handling as a selfish, dangerous habit that puts the hobby at risk? As always, the answer is likely somewhere in the middle. Below are the arguments and counter arguments and how they usually break down. For clarity, stances supporting tarantula handling will be in GREEN; stances against will be in RED.
Handling is an archaic, outdated practice from a period when only docile New World’s were being kept. Those against handling are very quick to point out that when the hobby first began, the majority of the species available to the pet trade were docile New World’s like the G. rosea and the B. smithi. Although these species are able to bite, their venom is quite mild to humans, and the discomfort has been likened to a bee sting. Those who received a bite would likely only suffer from an hour or so of localized pain and would be no worse for wear the next day. It’s also important to remember that these giant hairy spiders were a bit of an exotic novelty back then, and very little was known about their temperaments and behavior. Many people treated them in the same way they would a gerbil, hamster, or other small, furry mammal. In short, folks back then really didn’t know any better.
Today, the hobby has changed drastically. No longer are the only tarantulas available relatively docile Grammastola and Brachypelma species. The hobby is now filled with larger, more aggressive New World tropical genera like Phormictopus and Pamphobeteus, as well as a plethora of Old World species. Many argue that the majority of the hundreds of species now available on the market are not appropriate for handling. Folks who are not aware of the temperament and venom potency differences between species could be setting themselves up for a world of hurt if they try to get some hands-on time with a large tropical or an ornery Old World. The majority of species now kept in the hobby should probably not be handled due to temperament and/or venom potency, and the ones that are tractable get nothing from it. Handling has no purpose in the hobby and serves only to put the keeper and the animal in unnecessary danger.
Handling has been practiced for decades without major incident. Sometimes when debating an issue, it’s best to look at it in a historical context. Since the beginnings of the hobby in the 1970s, folks have handled their spiders, and not once has a bite made it to national news to threaten the hobby. Even when the hobby exploded in the ’90s, with many new species being offered at pet stores and exotic pet expos, you never heard stories of unsuspecting keepers being ravaged by their animals. The fact is, many of those who keep tarantulas consider them pets. As such, it is quite natural that they should want to interact with them as closely as possible and, in some ways, show them physical affection by handling them. Although the alarmists may want to paint handling as a reckless and dangerous habit, it’s a common and age-old practice that has yet to lead to any hobby-threatening tragedies.
In truth, tarantulas have been kept for decades, and in that time, many folks have handled without incident. Even as the number of species available in the hobby has swelled to hundreds and the number of people keeping these giant spiders has exploded, there’s yet to be a death or major incident reported. For those who keep and love these animals, handling can be a very natural an integral part of the hobby. To insinuate that someone who holds their T is being irresponsible is just silly.
Handling tarantulas causes them unnecessary stress and puts them at risk. In the wild, if a large animal suddenly grabs up a tarantula, that unfortunate spider is probably about to be made a meal. Tarantulas often live in hostile environments where they can be predated on by larger animals, including human beings. Anyone who has seen a startled T display the posture where it pulls all of its knees up over it body knows that they can, in the very least, experience stress. Although some spiders seem to cotton to handling, it must be jarring for them to be on substrate one minute then prodded onto a giant human hand another. Some can respond by hunkering down, sprinting away, or kicking hairs in defense; all behaviors that point to an unhappy spider. This can lead to escapes, a bite, or an injured or dead tarantula if it should fall. Folks in this camp believe that part of the responsibility of keeping these giant arachnids is to provide them with a safe, comfortable, stress-free environment. Handling only causes them unnecessary stress and risks triggering their survival instincts. It also increases the risk of escapes or injury from a fall or mishap.
If done correctly, handling causes no stress to the animal. Those who handle will often concede that just sticking your hand in and scooping up your pet is not the best way to go about it. When handling, it’s important to check your spider’s mood and temperament before putting your hand in, often by touching the back leg with something like the soft tip of a paintbrush. If the spider reacts favorable (or doesn’t react much at all) it is probably game for a bit of hands-on action. If it attacks the brush or kicks hair, you forgo handling, therefore sparing the tarantula unnecessary stress and yourself from a bite or a handful of hairs. It’s important to remember that these are animals that can be shipped cross-country in unfavorable climate conditions and emerge from their packages active and ready to eat. They have proven to be very capable of dealing with and bouncing back from stress.
Some folks who engage in this practice also express the belief that many tarantulas can become more comfortable with, and even enjoy, a keeper’s touch with with regular and systematic handling. Others even believe that tarantulas can learn to “trust” their keepers as long as a regular handling regiment is followed. As evidence, they are happy to share videos of them handling and petting their eight-legged friends, who seem perfectly relaxed. To these hobbyists, the idea of not handling your pet spiders is ridiculous, and those who decry it as harmful or reckless are equally as ridiculous.
However, not so fast…the thought of tarantulas enjoying close human contact is just absurd. Many who keep these amazing animals are certain that they are not hardwired to recognize and appreciate physical acts of affection, and they certainly can’t be trained or expected to learn new tricks. These are animals that don’t rely on intelligence or emotion, but instead operate on pure instinct. They definitely didn’t survive millions of years by cozying up to larger creatures for affection. This means that although you may enjoy holding your animal and stroking its abdomen or carapace, at the most your spider will be indifferent. It certainly isn’t going to enjoy the attention or reciprocate like your family dog might under the same circumstances. People on this side feel that if a spider allows you to handle it without incident, it doesn’t mean that it enjoys the interaction; no, it’s more likely that it is tolerating it. They are not a domestic animal like a dog or cat that has been evolved to adapt to close human interaction. They are wild animals that have existed and survived on hardwired primal instinct for millions of years. To these hobbyists, the mere suggestion that these arachnids could get any benefit from handling is simply ludicrous.
Some specimens are just really tame and tractable, so there’s no harm in handling them. There are many species of tarantulas that are recognized for having very docile temperaments and being okay for handling. If a keeper has a spider that she’s kept for a long period of time, observed its behavior, tested its temperament and handled in the past, what is the harm in it? Many folks, especially ones who use some of their spiders for demonstrations, have particular specimens that they handle frequently and without incident. It’s all about knowing your animals and recognizing their personalities.
These are wild animals and, as such, can be unpredictable. Some would say that tarantulas can be tame … until suddenly, they aren’t. There are plenty of stories out there from keepers who used to hold a particular specimen until it bolted or attacked, seemingly without warning. Sure, a tarantula may allow its keeper to handle it for a period of time, but all that means is that in those instances, it was tolerating the behavior. Have you ever accidentally blown on a T and seen its reaction? It doesn’t take much—an errant breath, a draft from a window, a slight jostle—to send a calm specimen into a frantic state. This makes them VERY unpredictable. There are also many stories of once docile Ts molting into nasty little monsters (and sometimes molting back to docile again). Their temperaments are NOT always predictable or consistent, and many will change as they age. Ts that tolerate handling one day could easily freak out the next.
Even if one were to get bit, no one has ever died from a tarantula bite, so the risk is minimal. Well, at least from a tarantula’s venom. Although there have been two cases in which a person has died from complications from a tarantula bite, both due to secondary infection, their venom is not lethal. The fact is, these aren’t venomous snakes or an animal that could kill you. A bite from one of these animals, particularly an Old World species, will lead to quite a bit of pain and discomfort, but there is no antivenin or hospital visit needed. Just a cursory look at the bite reports on Arachnoboards makes it very apparent anyone bitten walks away from the unpleasant experience. Those in this camp often complain that folks who describe them as potentially dangerous animals are grossly exaggerating.
Although not lethal, a bite can be debilitating … and could lead to a hobby ban. Now, obviously we’re talking about Old World bites here, and most people that choose to handle do so with more docile (and less potent) New World species. However, although most folks know better than to try to handle Old World tarantulas, a quick search on YouTube will reveal dozens of keepers who throw common sense to the wind to showoff their handling skills with these animal. These videos often have thousands of views and dozens of likes, and one can only assume that they could inspire copycats. Worse still, many new to the hobby don’t understand what differentiates New World and Old Word tarantulas and may emulate this type of handling without any idea of the danger they are putting themselves in.
Sure, a tarantula bite won’t kill you. That said, a bite from an Old World species can be much more than a simple inconvenience, and many bitten by these species end up in their local emergency rooms as they look for relief from the pain. And all it would take is one highly-publicized, sensationalized bite to make the press for folks to start asking why people are even allowed to keep venomous arachnids. It’s a fact that tarantula sales have already been banned in some countries and states for less. Tarantula keeping, although gaining popularity, is still a fringe hobby. If a legislator decides to push a ban on these “dangerous” bugs, there wouldn’t be much in the way of public opposition. Many feel that it’s hobbyist responsibility to maintain a hands-off relationship with their pets in order to minimize the chances that a bad bite could bring damaging publicity.
Handling for demonstrative purposes can be educational, help people get over their fear of these animals, and bring interest to the hobby. Some who keep tarantulas will put on demonstrations at elementary schools and expos, and usually a big part of these presentations involves the keeper handling a T or allowing others to handle it. If done properly and safely, those in attendance are in no danger as they get to experience these often demonized animals up close. It’s no secret that many people are both repulsed and fascinated by the idea of a giant hairy spider, so getting to experience one up close harmlessly being handled is a good way to stimulate that interest while assuaging some of that fear. Plenty of current hobbyists will tell of the first time they saw a tarantula up close or handled one during a presentation; in many cases, this interaction served as a catalyst for their interest in the hobby. The fact is, these types of presentations offer folks a chance to see these animals as the harmless, beautiful creatures they are and often lead to more of an appreciation and interest in the hobby.
The only purpose demonstration handling serves is to teach future hobbyists bad habits. For those who are against handling, these types of presentations are animal-centered freak shows that paint an inaccurate picture of what the hobby is about. If you were trying to generate an interest in the exotic fish hobby, for example, you certainly wouldn’t pass a poor fish around to be handled by dozens of gawkers. There are better ways to introduce folks to the hobby that don’t involve a practice that many hobbyists are vehemently against. Those against handling feel that people walk away from these demonstrations with the belief that handling is the norm and that all tarantulas will tolerate it. Because these are essentially wild animals with bites and urticating hairs that can make for a very unpleasant day, those being introduced to the hobby should be introduced to these animals as fascinating but deserving of respect, not as toys to be touched and played with.
Handling can be useful and necessary for maintenance. I include this one on the list as I’ve personally heard a few people explain that in order to perform maintenance in the most stress-free way, it is best for the keeper to remove the tarantula from its enclosure by hand. They argue that the use of tongs and plastic cups to poke, corral, and capture the spider only causes undue stress. If a keeper handles his/her spiders and gets them use to the process, it’s better to just pick them up and move them when doing cage transfers or cleaning. For these folks, years of experience has taught them to read subtle behavioral signs and to recognize when a tarantula might be tolerant of handling, and they feel comfortable using their hands and not a plastic cup to relocate their prized pets.
There is absolutely, positively NO need to pick up your tarantula for transfers and cleanings. There are many methods hobbyists use to safely transfer their pets, whether it be cupping, the bag method, or the bottle technique. Physically picking up the Ts to move them usually doesn’t come into the discussion. The vast majority of keepers would never consider using their hands for transfers. Although this may work for some of the more docile species, many collections consist of the more fast and feisty Old World tarantulas, and the general consensus is that these species should never be handled. Are you really going to pick up your OBT or Poecilotheria species to rehouse it? Besides, the logic behind a gentle cupping being more stressful than being picked up by a giant hand is suspect at best. A cup can be quickly placed over most tarantulas without them panicking, allowing the keeper to safely move his or her T anytime with minimal stress and danger to the keeper and animal. Using your hands? Not so much.. If the tarantula should bite or bolt, you could end up with an escaped or missing spider.
Let me start by saying that I truly feel that this is not a black and white issue and that both sides have very valid points. Do I appreciate why both sides are so passionate about their opinions on the subject? I sure do. From a personal standpoint, I do not hold my tarantulas. Although I’ve engaged in the practice in the past, and am pleased that I can cross “handle large hairy spider” off of my bucket list, the concept of getting hands on time with my Ts quickly lost much its novelty. Although I love my spiders and think of them as pets, I also perceive them as wild animals that really get nothing from close human contact. If I want to cuddle or pet something, I have four attention-thirsty dogs ready to take one for the team.
For me, it really comes down to risk vs. reward, both for me and the spider I try to hold. If I do hold my T and it goes well, I really don’t get much out of it except I can tell folks that I’ve handled a giant bug (and, admittedly, many folks would find that quite cool). And what would the spider get out of it? Absolutely nothing. At best, it tolerates its big, creepy keeper passing it back and forth between his sweaty hands for a few moments. The biggest issue for me is the safety of my animals. I know that if I get bit, my knee jerk reaction is going to be to quickly pull my hand away. This would likely result in me sending my tarantula airborne and possibly killing it. It’s a reflex that I can’t control, so no amount of preparation could ever prevent this from occurring if I were to be bitten. And, as much as I feel like I’m good at reading my tarantulas’ body language and behavior to assess their moods, I recognize that I could never be 100% sure that one wouldn’t bite me.
Then there’s the fact that the majority of my collection consists of large skittish New World tropical species and Old Words, so many of my animals would be hands-off anyway. I’m always in the habit of being careful to keep my hands away from some of my defensive baboons, so it just doesn’t even cross my mind anymore to pick up any of my specimens. For me, they are there to be admired, and I feel that by not handling, I’m putting the safety of my pets first.
All this said, does this mean that I look down on those who do choose to handle their pets?
I’ve been around the hobby long enough and met enough folks to appreciate the draw of handling and to recognize when it’s being done responsibly. And, having been around animals my entire life, I definitely agree that, to some degree, an observant keeper who is familiar with his spider’s behavior and mood is likely at little risk of being bit. I know many folks, many who are friend from the hobby, who keep these animals and really get enjoyment out of taking them out and spending a little hands on time with them. Considering in some countries, these gorgeous creatures are hunted, cooked, and eaten, a little time spent watching TV with a careful keeper doesn’t seem all that bad in comparison.
And if I’m being completely honest, I have a couple specimens that I’ve found to be so docile and, quite frankly, adorable that I am very tempted to hold them. Furthermore, although I’ve never taken my Euathlus sp. red and female B. albopilosum out specifically for handling, I may have had each in my hand more than once. Although it’s not something I would shoot a video on or encourage others to do, I certainly understand the attraction. If I didn’t have my dogs or some other cuddly domestic pet, perhaps I would feel a little different about handling.
Like all things in this amazing hobby, I think that education and preparation are key. Those looking to handle their tarantulas should make sure they are aware of the risks and research the correct and safest way to go about this activity. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that demonstrate how to correctly and safely go about holding a tarantula. A keeper who makes the correct preparations and handles their spider in a responsible manner should be posing very little risk to herself, the spider, or the hobby. That said, I do think that tarantulas should be kept out of the hands of friends and family as a bite could lead to a bad situation (and likely result in a lifelong fear of Ts for the victim).
The hobby, although bigger than ever, has been around for a long time. And in that time, many people have handled their pets with no serious consequences. Whether hobbyist agree on handling or not, it’s going to to continue to happen regardless of the protests and admonishments of those who see it as risky to the animals and the hobby. Regardless of which side of the fence you land on, when the topic inevitably comes up, healthy debate and informed discussion is much more effective and productive than admonishment or brow-beating.
Although I can see both sides of the handling argument, I stand firm that I see absolutely no reason for anyone to chance holding Old World species. I understand that some keepers handle their baboon and Poecilotheria species without incident, but I’ve also seen folks put their heads in crocodiles’ mouths and kiss king cobras. Just succeeding in doing something reckless and dangerous does not make it right. Furthermore, I think that folks that post videos of this type of activity are being incredibly irresponsible, as young or ill-informed keepers may be inspired to replicate this daredevil behavior. Even if you do have the world’s most docile OBT, let’s not mistakenly convince folks that this behavior is the norm and not a huge exception.
I DO believe that there is some merit to the idea that a publicized bite could lead to legislation restricting their sale. I live in Connecticut where it is already illegal for pet shops and expos to sell venomous inverts including tarantulas. After a horrible chimp attack in my state in 2009, legislators put forth a bill that would have banned just about ALL exotic pets. Although this bill ultimately failed, the fact that it managed to gain any traction at all is a scary reminder that to most folks at large, exotic animals like tarantulas shouldn’t be kept as pets. Sure, we as hobbyist might recognize that these animals are harmless overall, but the general public at large is not nearly as informed as we are.
As keepers, it is our responsibility to respect our animals and protect the hobby by not taking unnecessary and careless risks with them. However, whether or not handling is an “irresponsible behavior” really depends on the circumstances and the keeper.
What are your thoughts on handling? Feel free to chime in through the comment section below!
Special thanks the C.J. Peters for the excellent handling photos!