Or, Why we need to eliminate the “My Way or the Highway” Attitude in Tarantula Keeping
No matter the hobby or interest, there are always going to be debates and arguments between those with different views. Whether it be sports, music, movies, or cars, it seems that many folks believe that an integral part of becoming an “expert” in a particular area entails showcasing your vast knowledge in spirited kerfuffles with other enthusiasts. After all, what better way to show how much you know than to verbally beat down someone with less awareness on the subject?
The tarantula hobby, of course, is no exception. Anyone who spends time on a public forum or group dedicated to tarantulas will inevitably encounter some “grab the popcorn” level disagreements about various subjects. Topics like handling, water dishes, supplemental heating, and even basic husbandry can lead to many passionate, often nasty, disagreements between experts and novices alike. The difference between our hobby and others however is, when two folks argue over who has the better baseball team or who the best metal guitarist is, the only thing possibly hurt is an ego. When tarantulas are involved, however, these debates can lead to the propagation of misinformation…and in some cases, dead animals.
Recently, a couple negative interactions with other keepers really got me thinking about some of the issues with our hobby; namely, the close-minded adherence to personal anecdotal evidence and an unwillingness to accept that just because something works for a person, it doesn’t make it the only way to do things…or even the right way to do things.
In one instance (already documented in a previous post) an experienced keeper took issue with the fact that I said under most circumstances, heat and humidity are two things that keepers stress too much about. Said keeper explained that in his 18 years of breeding experience, he had learned that heat was very important, and he used mats to keep his enclosures warmer. He called the article one of the worst husbandry articles he has ever read.
In another instance, a YouTuber commented on a couple of my videos to say that “tarantulas don’t have water dishes in the wild,” and that all Ts can get their water through prey. When I tried to explain my point of view on the matter, I was called an “idiot” for wasting my time supplying these “useless” accessories.
Now, obviously there are jerks and bullies in every hobby, whether it’s gaming, exotic pets, or even cooking, so it’s not surprising that one might share his opinion in such a rancorous manner. Factor in that it’s the Internet, which can embolden even the most meek basement dwelling keyboard jockey, and the potential for useless, trollish banter increases 100 fold.
However, in both of these instances, it sounded as if the posters probably had some serious experience in the hobby. The rude tone of both comments indicated that these folks weren’t just ordinary internet trolls, but hobbyist who felt totally offended by what they saw as completely false and ridiculous statements. Their belief in their way of keeping spiders, one with heat and the other without dishes, was so strong, that they apparently found my statements to the contrary to be offensive. They were lashing out at comments that contradicted what they had witnessed with their own eyes.
It’s not their beliefs that I take issue with; on the contrary, although I don’t necessarily agree with their statements, I respect that it is apparently working for them. I also appreciate that trying to argue that using heat mats or leaving out water dishes is wrong as it would be fruitless. After all, if they are heating their collections and not supplying water dishes and their Ts are doing well, then how can I possibly say that they are wrong?
No, my issue is with the rude way they present their conflicting views, and the fact that they are not offering them as their opinions, but as fact. It’s an example of the whole, “I’m right, therefore you’re wrong” mentality that permeates the hobby. That’s dangerous territory, as there is already enough misinformation and opinion about tarantulas being passed around in cyberspace as fact; we don’t need more.
The problem is that we are taught to believe what we experience with our own senses, so it’s natural to trust our own observations as powerful anecdotal evidence. We keep our tarantulas a certain way, they eat, molt, and grow, therefore we have to be doing everything right. However, this type of evidence is far from scientific, and for it to become truly useful and important, we have to compare our experiences to those of other keepers. And for keepers to feel comfortable enough to publicly share their findings, we need to be a bit more nurturing and receptive as a collective when someone presents ideas that conflict with our own beliefs.
The catch 22 of anecdotal data
Is using anecdotal evidence wrong? No, it’s an invaluable part of the hobby. It’s important to remember that our hobby is very much built on the experience of past keepers, the pioneers who first experiment with keeping these unique animals. As more of these keepers recorded and reported on what worked (and sometimes, what didn’t) over the course of several decades, these anecdotes accumulated into something much more substantial and powerful. We could now examine a more sizable sample of data and draw much more accurate and reliable conclusions from it. It was no longer one person saying that certain tarantulas don’t need extra heat or high humidity; it was hundreds.
A single keeper’s observations, although important, are still just anecdotal. Our minds can often cause us to recognize false positives as connections are made too easily and other pertinent information is disregarded or ignored. Personal bias or beliefs can often influence what we think we see, tainting the lens we view the world through. Your perceived experience with one tarantula is not enough to declare an observed connection as fact.
As an example, a beginning keeper posted on a message board that she had come up with a new way of keeping her tarantulas. After reading about their natural habitats, she began mixing sea salt in with their substrate. It appears that one of the habitat descriptions she read mentioned that some live in areas known to have small amounts of salt in the substrate, and she decided to try to create this mix in her terrarium. She lauded this new technique, even going so far to say that her tarantulas were now much more active and healthy since she made the move. Many folks like to experiment with substrate mixtures, and this woman was obviously trying to emulate her spider’s natural environment.
There was only one issue.
Salt is recognized as being poisonous to spiders and tarantulas and, when mixed with water, is used as a chemical-free pesticide by some. The idea of purposely introducing salt into a tarantula enclosure seemed dangerous to many. And, even if this additive wasn’t hurting her tarantulas, it certainly shouldn’t provide any health benefits.
When folks tried to politely inform this hobbyist that she could be putting her animals, especially the fragile slings, at risk, she scoffed at it. Her main argument? They were doing fine, so there must not be an issue. She chose to believe what she thought she was seeing with her own eyes rather than defer to the scientific evidence and collective experience that disproved her theory.
In the above example, I use a keeper who is new to the hobby. However, the same situation can occur with keepers that have been doing this for a while. There are some amazing veteran keepers out there who are keeping up with changes and advancements in the hobby. Then, there are others who feel that if it has worked for a decade or more, it is obviously the “correct” way to do things. I’m guessing that the breeder who took umbrage to my temperature and humidity post fell into this category. These folks feel very strongly that any husbandry that differs from what they do is therefore “incorrect”, and they can be quick to disparage folks that don’t fall in line with them. The problem is, there is a huge difference between, “This is what I do, and it has worked for me,” and “This is what I do, and it is the correct way to do it.” In the second situation, the keeper is relying on his or her observations only to declare something fact.
How can we really tell if they are happy or merely surviving?
Tarantulas are not the most expressive animals, so it can be very tricky to discern their moods or overall state of health or well-being. Many keepers talk about spiders that are seemingly fine one day, then curled up and dead the next. The warning signs of trouble are few and difficult to recognize, especially for those new to the hobby. So, although anecdotal data is very important, it can also be misleading when not compared with the observations of other keepers.
The fact that 10 different keepers can keep a spider 10 different ways and all report that the spider is seemingly thriving is a testament to just how adaptable and hardy these creatures are. It means that they are able to survive in a number of conditions, many of them adverse. Just because a T is eating and molting doesn’t mean that it’s getting the best care possible. Sadly, I’ve seen many folks justify their spotty husbandry by stating, “Well, it’s not dead, so I must be doing something right.” Can you imagine applying the same reasoning to your dog or cat?
To recognize when we are doing a good job with their care, we also need to consider what others are doing.
There is no instruction manual for raising tarantulas, and the handful of good husbandry books available often offer pertinent but limited information when it comes to the individual needs of specific species of tarantulas. After all, with over 900 species in the world, a book that covered the specific and detailed husbandry needs of each one would be one massive volume. That means the majority of the species-specific husbandry information we get comes from the cumulative accounts of those who keep them.
For example, Keeper A picks up a new species, does some research on its natural habitat, sets it up, and reports his observation on a blog, care sheet, forum, or in the comments of a YouTube video. Keeper B finds these accounts during her research, but she keeps her specimen in slightly colder temps and with less substrate. The tarantula appears to be fine, so she reports on her findings. Over the years, more keepers tweak this husbandry recipe until we finally come to having a “definitive” mode of husbandry.
And, on occasion, the generally recognized and accepted husbandry for a particular species proves to be incorrect. Take the genus Avicularia as a recent example. The internet is still rife with care sheets that state Avicularia need to be kept humid with moist substrate and frequent spraying. When hobbyists first began keeping this species, they looked to their natural habitat to determine how they should be kept. As they hail from humid locales, it seemed to make sense to keep them in humid enclosures. However, these species soon got a reputation for being fragile and difficult to keep as more and more hobbyist reported incidences of “Sudden Avic Death Syndrome”as their spiders died suddenly and with no apparent cause.
Then one day, some keeper or keepers got what must have been seen as a crazy idea. What if, instead of keeping them in stuffy and humid enclosures, we tried dry and well-ventilated ones instead?
Having witnessed what can happen in groups or on message boards when someone recommends a radical new husbandry idea, I can only imagine the backlash this poor guy or gal received when first sharing his or her findings. I can just imagine responses like, “Everyone knows avics need high humidity!” or “You can’t keep them dry…they’ll die!” For anyone who has spent time on certain message boards or Facebook groups, you can probably appreciate what a fracas this would have created.
And yet this out-of-the-box thinking not only revolutionized how we keep this species, but also likely saved thousands of spiders. It is now widely recognized that many of those SADS deaths could be attributed to dank, stuffy cages, and folks who keep them dry and well-ventilated report healthy spiders. If this person or people had their voices drowned out by close-minded hobbyists that “knew better”, we might still be keeping these animals wrong.
It is crucial that folks in this hobby feel safe to express new ideas.
Instances like this serve as sterling examples of why it’s always crucial to be open-minded when hearing new techniques or ideas. Does it mean we have to accept everything as true and valid? Of course not. There are going to be times where keepers come up with some outlandish ideas that seem to lack any shred of common sense. I’ve also seen a lot of new hobbyists who read something false then report it as fact in an effort to appear “in the know.” However, the way we respond to these folks is still important. Instead of a dozen people hopping on to decry the keeper as reckless, irresponsible, or stupid, perhaps a more civil reply is in order. Consider these two responses to someone who has reported something suspect:
“Ridiculous. That’s a great way to kill your T. Do some more research.”
“Interesting. I do appreciate your perspective. However, experience has taught me otherwise. Here is what I’ve found (insert explanation here). Thanks for sharing and good luck!”
As this is a public dialog, the first reply is going to be seen by others who are now likely worried about opening their mouths and sounding stupid. After all, who wants to be rudely and publicly admonished in such a manner? Talk about a great way to choke off discourse. Furthermore, by scolding the poster in such a brash manner they’re likely to become defensive and close off to hearing conflicting viewpoints. Absolutely nothing is gained in this exchange. However, with the second more polite response, the original poster is more likely to at least consider that he may want to rethink his technique. This type of mature reply will also foster a more open and friendly tone for the communication of ideas (good and bad), and invite more folks to share their experiences.
Valuable information can be gleaned from alternative viewpoint and strategies.
Recently, popular YouTuber Deadly Tarantula girl shared a video about how she keeps her P. muticus specimens, and the video received quite a bit of backlash. Although the general consensus is that these are fossorial species that require deep substrate in which to dig in order to thrive, Marita explained that she keeps hers terrestrially with a bit of substrate and a hide. Now, although this flies in the face of how most folks choose to keep this species, it should be noted that Marita has been in the hobby for a long time, and although she does some things that might be “controversial”, she has years of experience to fall back on. And, having kept the muticus for over 20 years, she should definitely know a thing or two about their care.
I must admit, when first viewing the video, I was impressed that she would post something that she obviously knew would be incredibly divisive. At the same time I was not quite in agreement, as this was NOT how I kept mine. That said, instead of firing off some snarky knee-jerk comment about the video, I mulled over what she said and took to following the comments being posted about it.
The incident served as the impetus for an amazing dialog between several hobbyists and I about this species, leading many of us to realize that trying to replicate its natural habitat with the deep substrate could be creating some problems with its husbandry. Many folks, me included, reported issues with their specimens sealing themselves up in the bottom of deep burrows and never resurfacing to eat. In some cases, the animals seemingly starved to death after months secreted away in their burrows.
Which is the “correct” way? I don’t have a definitive answer yet, but DTG video spurred the type of thought and discussion that would hopefully lead to better husbandry practices and healthier Ts. Many of us were left rethinking what we thought we knew about this species and its proper care. It clearly illustrates how important the sharing of information can be in this hobby, as well as the importance of always keeping an open mind when being presented with new perspectives.
Now, before someone gets the idea that I’m encouraging wild experimentation in the hobby, that’s not at all my point. Although I think it’s healthy to consider new perspectives while evolving your husbandry, turning your back on scientific evidence or years of generally recognized husbandry can be dangerous. There is a big difference between experience-guided decisions and blind experimentation.
I AM advocating for two very important things; respect and open-mindedness.
Respect the opinions of others, no matter how outlandish or contrary they may seem. I love when those on message boards ridicule or chastise someone for a poor husbandry choice, then justify it by saying that they are “teaching.” That’s not teaching. A teacher will politely address the person, offering clear and non-judgmental feedback as to why they feel the person may be incorrect. The “student” should leave the conversation feeling educated and supported, not ridiculed and attacked.
Of course, respect goes both ways. If you’re the seasoned keeper addressing a newbie who may be suggesting something strange, try to remember what it was like to be new to this hobby and be patient with your reply. Ridicule and browbeating has no place in constructive discourse. If you’re the newbie and a seasoned keeper offers your polite feedback, be respectful of their experience level within the hobby. Becoming snotty and contrary does no one any good.
And I don’t care if you’re a keeper with 10 years of experience or 10 days, it’s always important to keep an open mind. The question you should always use to guide you through keeping is not “Does it work”; it’s “Is there a better way?” Even when confronted with husbandry techniques and practices that differ greatly from what you do, you should try to be open-minded and see if there is something to be gleaned from the experience. After all, what you do may work for you, but it may not necessarily be the best way to do it.
The importance of sharing information without fear of repudiation or admonishment is crucial to the advancement of the hobby. The truth is, no matter how large our collections may grow, they still only represent a micro-fraction of the animals being kept. To really get a better, more accurate view of what “works”, we need a much larger sample than that of just one keeper. We need to collectively pool our experiences, both good and bad, to ensure that this incredible hobby continues to grow and to improve.