And How to Address This Question when It Inevitably Comes up.
Recently, I received the following email from hobbyist, Hugo Pinheiro:
Hope you’re doing well. I was talking to someone I’d just met and we ended up talking about tarantulas and they asked something that kinda left me defenseless or at least lacking a convincing point. They asked: “don’t you feel like you’re depriving a tarantula from its freedom?” – immediately I thought this person was judging me and my impulse response was something along the lines of “well, technically, you’re doing the same when you get a dog…” But this answer didn’t feel right to me, tarantulas aren’t dogs after all. If they see a chance to escape and follow their own path, they will. Dogs stay because they get attached and want to stay. At the same time I feel like we’re giving them an opportunity of having a very chilled life, no predators, all the food they want and a decent enclosure. Do you ever get this question? What’s your take on this controversial topic? Once again, thanks for your time!
The short answer was, yes, I’ve been asked this many times, mostly through comments on my blog or YouTube channel. Furthermore, I’ve run into this mindset quite a bit in the comment section of other keepers’ videos. Although I love animals myself, and appreciate that there are folks out there who truly care about their well-being, it can be incredibly frustrating to try to convince some of these people that we are not mistreating our tarantulas. And, like Hugo realized, it can be very difficult coming up with that killer response on the spur of the moment to defend our hobby.
With that in mind, I asked Hugo if it would be okay for me to address this topic in a special Tarantula Controversies. After all, we all get asked this question at some point, and hopefully this article can serve as a go-to resource on the subject. For those who have read my other Tarantula Controversy articles, I usually try to present the arguments in a point/counterpoint format. As I honestly don’t agree with the other side one iota, I’ll be spending the majority of the time defending the hobby in this article.
Before engaging in a debate over this subject, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First off, most people just don’t know very much about tarantulas. Spend enough time in the hobby, and you’ll get plenty of interesting questions about them like do they roam your house, do they drink blood, do they all live in one cage, and do you take them for walks? When you try to educate the public about these animals, you’ll need to cut through a lot of misconceptions and prejudices.
It’s also important to note that folks who ask this question usually come in two varieties:
First, we have the well-meaning but ill-informed sort. These folks aren’t necessarily looking for a confrontation. They just don’t know very much about these animals, and they are asking the question out of pure curiosity. This contingent can be quite reasonable, especially after being calmly and politely introduced to the facts. I’ve had discussions with a few folks about this topic who were just unaware of how tarantulas live in the wild and who left the conversation with a better appreciation of the hobby. It can be quite rewarding to take the time to educate folks like this, and you can consider the time spent explaining our hobby to them productive and important.
Then there are the ill-informed, close-minded, militant animal rights sort who will not listen to reason. These are the folks who, even after being schooled on the facts and realities of a tarantula’s life in the wild and in the hobby, continue to view keepers as imprisoners and torturers of animals who deprive spiders of their freedom and quality of life for their own amusement. These folks basically equate us to dog fighters, and there is nothing you can say or do to change their mind. Unfortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to tangle with a few of this sort as well, and I don’t think that “frustrating” is a strong enough word to describe these encounters.
When you get the sense that you are talking to this type of individual, it’s almost pointless to continue to debate them. They will refuse to listen, and their often illogical retorts can be infuriating.
For example, one woman I spoke to told me that she suddenly looked at the little B. smithi she had raised from a sling and realized that she had been depriving her of her of freedom for her own selfish needs. As a result, she had decided to try to find someone in Mexico to ship the tarantula to so that they could release it into the wild (yes, this was a captive bred sling). If that didn’t work, she was going to drive into the California desert and release it there.
Although I tried to explain why this was not a good idea for a variety of reasons, she wasn’t having it. Her spider would be better off dying free in the wilds of the California desert rather than spending another moment being fed and well cared for by a keeper who obviously adored her (if a bit too much).
You can’t make this stuff up.
This woman would not listen to reason no matter what I said, and eventually she terminated the conversation when she became angry at me for not doing the same with my spiders. I was left irritated and feeling like I had wasted an hour of my life with this discussion.
Before you enter the fray, try to get a feel for which type of person you’re talking to. If they seem reasonable and open to actually listen to your side, continue. Who knows, you could stimulate some interest in our hobby. However, if it soon becomes apparently that logic will prove to be a useless weapon in combating the ignorance, say your peace, then let it drop. It’s an argument you will never win.
So, what DO you say to someone who asks this question?
First off it’s important for tarantula hobbyists to consider that there is an obvious distinction to be made between domestic pets – specifically ones conditioned to be kept as companions – and exotic pets. Dogs, cats, ferrets, hamsters, gerbils, and other animals have been bred by humans for years for pets. These are the standard every day pets that most folks find to be “normal” companion animals. These animals have been tamed by humans and seem to readily accept or even enjoy handling and interaction. As a result, people are much more familiar with these animals.
Exotic pets, on the other hand, often include more “wild” animals like reptiles, arachnids and insects. Although these animals are often captive bred, they are also sometimes plucked directly from the wild and sold into the pet trade. They have not been bred to accept human contact as normal, nor are they hardwired to recognize humans as friendly. Although some tolerate handling and can become accustomed to it, they don’t benefit from years of captive breeding to suppress the natural instincts they would need in order to survive in the wild.
The majority of people you encounter will be much more familiar with the husbandry and care needs of domestic pets. When they think of a pet, they think of animal needing constant feeding, watering, exercise and, in many cases human love, and assume that it’s like this for all pets. When they look at our hobby and husbandry techniques, they tend to be looking at it through an inappropriate lens. Because of this relationship we have with our furry pets, it’s very easy to anthropomorphize them and apply human needs on them. And, with these types of pets, it can be appropriate to do so.
However, reptiles, insects, and arachnids are a different type of pet all together, and their needs are often much different. Some of the conditions that these animals thrive in just seem downright odd or wrong to someone who is not familiar with their needs.
Then, there is the fact that many people can’t get by the “wild animal” part of it. After all, why would anyone want to take a wild animal, put it in a tank and call it a pet? Especially an animal that won’t show you any affection?
For example, cats and dogs recognize that their humans provide them with food, security, and affection, so you become a major part of their lives. Some of their natural instincts, like the urge to flee or bite, have been softened or even eliminated by years of captive breeding. Most cats and dogs appreciate physical affection from their owners and will purr or wag their tails contentedly during a petting, showing affection back.
These are obviously traits you wouldn’t necessarily expect from your pet ball python or B. albopilosum. Although these two animals may tolerate handling, they are certainly not creatures most would describe as cuddly. They also don’t require human contact to thrive, unlike a cat or a dog may.
Another distinction can be found in the husbandry requirements of these animals. For most of the standard mammalian pets, they require room to exercise, water available at all times, food at least once a day, and opportunities to run and play.
Unfortunately, none of these can be considered needs for a tarantula.
Comparing the needs of these two types of pets is often silly, and in some instances, can be dangerous. For example, folks used to feeding their mammalian pets every day would be wrong to assume that their pet snake needed to eat this often. A feeding schedule that aggressive would lead to one obese snake.
Compared to many other pets, both common and exotic, tarantulas have very few needs. This can be difficult for people to grasp. For some, comparing tarantulas to exotic fish is a good place to start. Many fish are kept in smaller homes, and once you have their water properly set up and the temperature correct, you pretty much leave them to their own devices. You don’t handle them or play with them and expect them to show affection.
And you usually don’t hear many folks arguing that your goldfish should be dumped into a local pond so that it can be free.
It’s important that a keeper is aware of these prejudices before attempting to engage in a logical argument on the subject. Some folks will readily admit their ignorance about tarantula husbandry when these points are explained to them and will become much more receptive to hearing more.
Others will need some more convincing.
With that in mind, here are some of the most common comments from folks who take umbrage at our hobby.
You wouldn’t keep your dog in a crate all day, would you? I think it’s terrible that those poor creatures have to suffer in those tiny cages with no room to move.
Yes, keeping a dog or cat in a tiny room for its entire life would be cruel. But that’s because these animals NEED exercise, much like we need exercise, to be healthy. Some animals have also shown that they can become anxious and bored when not able to cut loose and play.
People will see the photos and videos of deli cups and tanks and immediately (and wrongly) think of their cat and dog being in the same situation. To them, it’s shocking that an animal could truly be content and healthy in a smaller environment. I’ve heard our enclosures referred to as “prisons” and “cells” by concerned animal lovers; in fact, the sizes of our enclosures seem to be a main area of contention in these discussions.
However, wild tarantulas have VERY different needs than cats or dogs, and comparing these animals just doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.
First, it’s important to consider that the majority of tarantulas in the wild frequent burrows of some sort. They use these homes as a haven from their often harsh environments and from predators. These homes supply them with refuge from the elements including oppressive heat, sometimes bitter cold, flooding, and drought. Many species will remain in these burrows for the majority of their lives, with others rarely leaving their burrows even at night. They are not animals that need or want to roam huge territories to hunt. Most will stick to a small area and grab the prey that comes to them. Being visible and out in the open just makes them an easier target for predators.
In captivity, their enclosures essentially become their burrows. These homes provide a sense of safety and security which is often evidenced by a much calmer and less defensive tarantula. A well set up cage supplies all of the amenities a burrow does, including security from predators and the elements. In captivity, settled tarantulas will make their enclosure their own by burrowing, webbing, and arranging things to their liking. Those who have been in the hobby for a while can tell you that even the most defensive species will act quite calm when given an appropriate enclosure, and calmness is an indication of contentedness.
The reality is, unlike other animals, tarantulas require a very small amount of real estate to thrive.
But why are they venturing out when in captivity? Why leave the security of a burrow and risk predation or exposure? If your tarantula just needs a burrow, why does it come out to roam at night?
Well, in most cases, they are looking for food.
Although some spiders will hide in their burrows 24/7 waiting for prey to come by so that they can ambush it, others will venture out at night to find a meal. This is a purely instinctual behavior, and something they would need to do in the wild in order to eat. They have not been kept long enough in captivity to be domesticated by humans (nor is domestication realistic) and they don’t understand that food will be dropped into their cages periodically, negating the need to hunt. In the wild, environmental conditions often lead to periods of food scarcity, so a tarantula needs to eat when it can. A captive tarantula that has recently eaten will still leave its home at night. This isn’t a sign of the discontentedness or that the tarantula is trying to escape poor conditions; it’s doing what millions of years of evolution have conditioned it to do.
But how can living in that tiny cage be healthy? They need to exercise and run!
Again, when tarantulas explore their enclosures, they’re not heading out for a walkabout to stretch their legs or to get rid of some pent up energy they’ve accumulated by sitting in their burrow all day.
This is where our past experience with mammalian animals tends to lead folks to mistakenly project certain expectations on our arachnid wards. For example, anyone who has a dog or a cat knows that they need exercise to maintain a happy and healthy life. Cats and dogs will run and play, and this exercise is both physically and mentally necessary for them. Even hamsters and gerbils will explore and take a spin on their wheels to get some energy out.
Spiders? Not so much.
They don’t play. They don’t race around for fun. They don’t need to move to keep their muscles toned and their hearts primed. There has been no scientific or even anecdotal evidence of them needing any of these things. At the most, they may busy themselves with rearranging and remodeling their enclosures by webbing and digging, and that’s more them altering their environments to their liking. Mature males will also wander in search of females to mate with. That’s about it.
Tarantulas are excellent at conserving energy for when they really need it. Their book lungs function in such a way that they are not capable of long marathon runs or extended periods of physical activity. They definitely don’t require physical exercise to stay in peak shape or to maintain their health. Heck, I have a G. porteri that has spent 99% of her 21 years with me sitting stationary. Their speed usually comes in short, quick bursts and is meant for catching prey or eluding predators. Anyone who has seen a seemingly calm tarantula bolt can appreciate their seemingly supernatural ability to go from sedentary to hyper-speed in a split second. But those bursts come with a cost; namely, they have no endurance.
The idea of them “needing” space to “run free” and to exercise is, quite frankly, ridiculous, and this sentiment usually comes from well-meaning but woefully ill-informed folks who are projecting the needs of mammals on arachnids.
Should they be given some room to stretch and explore? Absolutely. Most keepers give their tarantulas extra room should they want to move around a bit. But it’s very important to keep in mind that their wandering tendencies in the wild are for the procurement of food or for mating purposes. With their keeper dropping in prey items regularly, these instincts remain intact, but prove unnecessary. Lots of extra space to move around certainly won’t hurt a tarantula, but it carries no major benefit.
But if they are truly content in their enclosures, why do some flee when we open them? After all, if an animal is really comfortable and stress free in its enclosure, why would it try to run away?
Imagine if you will that you’re sitting at home one night watching TV when suddenly an enormous creature tears the roof off of your home and starts fiddling with your living room furniture? How would you react? What would you do? I’m guessing most of us wouldn’t just sit there and wait to see what this creature had in store for us. No, most of us would run. It’s a pretty universal and natural reaction.
When you open a tarantula’s enclosure to feed or water it, you may have nothing but good intentions in mind. The tarantula, however, doesn’t know this. For your animal, this can be as shocking as someone tearing the roof off your home. In the wild, this would represent a serious threat, and the spider would most likely be in imminent danger. It may become defensive, anticipating an attack by a large predator, or it may flee and try to find safety. This isn’t a creature that’s running away from its enclosure because it’s a prisoner; it’s running because it’s scared.
The idea that tarantulas bolt because they are unhappy is another example of humans anthropomorphizing these creatures. Bolting is a defensive tactic and an expression of animal instinct.
They would be much better off free in their natural habitat than in a human’s collection.
First off, let me say that I’m not a proponent of pulling tarantulas from the wild for the pet trade. I believe that the goal should always be to use any wild caught specimens to create a captive bred population that can sustain itself. I think I speak for most hobbyists when I say I would love nothing more than to have these wonderful creatures thriving in their natural habitats.
However, when folks try to insinuate that captive tarantulas’ lives are terrible when compared to their lives in the wild, I have to roll my eyes.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider the challenges “free” tarantulas have to face.
A wild tarantula…
must find or construct a burrow.
must deal with floods and drought.
must endure temperature fluctuations, including blistering heat and brutal cold.
must constantly hunt for its food.
can get parasites.
faces habitat destruction.
must avoid predators, including humans.
Again, I’m in no way shape or form arguing that we should pluck them out of the wild; this is just reality. Tarantulas face a very tough existence in their natural habitats, as evidenced by the fact that many are now identified as endangered. Tarantulas hail from some of the most inhospitable places on earth, and very few ever make it to adulthood.
Now, let’s consider what captive tarantulas endure.
A captive tarantula must “endure”…
occasional disruptions to their burrow for cleaning purposes.
annoying owners snapping photos of them.
a climate controlled environment.
food provided regularly
fresh water available at all times
a safe home free from predators.
In all seriousness, tarantulas enjoy a much less stressful and dangerous life with a responsible and informed keeper than they would ever get in the wild. They have safety from predators and weather, adequate meals provided regularly, clean water at all times, and consistent and favorable temperatures all year round. If kept correctly, they have the ideal conditions in which to prosper.
But they are wild animals, and wild animals shouldn’t be kept as pets.
I always considered this to be a weak argument, but I’ll address it anyway. Every animal currently kept by man as a pet was, at one point, a wild animal. Somewhere sometime long ago, a person saw a gerbil and said, “Wow, that crazy little desert rat would make a fantastic pet.” Every pet trend has to start somewhere, and that often involves some harvesting from the wild. Tarantulas are still a relatively new pet when compared to other animals commonly kept, so we’re still at a point where wild-caught specimens do come into the hobby. Again, local populations being depleted for the pet trade is never a good thing, and I don’t think anyone in the hobby would try to defend that. However, many of the species now commonly available are being bred and offered as captive-bred slings. The vast majority keepers try to avoid wild-caught specimens and instead buy spiders produced in captivity.
Although few will argue that tarantulas will ever be domesticated like dogs or cats, they DO seem to do very well in captivity. Sure, some have more complicated husbandry than others, but given the correct conditions, they do great as pets. These aren’t tigers, lions, or orcas suffering in captivity. They are arachnids, animals that have survived millions of years due to their ability to adapt and live in almost any environment. They don’t just tolerate captivity, but flourish in it.
Furthermore, critically endangered species like Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica and metallica are currently thriving in the hobby even as their numbers and habitats continue to dwindle in the wild. In the not-so-distant future, it’s conceivable that many species of tarantulas may continue to exist only in collections. Strong, captive-bred breeding populations ensure that hobbyists decades from now will still be able to enjoy these beautiful and fascinating animals.
I think that it’s important to also mention that hobbyists truly love these animals. Why else would anyone choose to keep a creature that many people abhor? Many enthusiasts are very familiar with these creatures’ natural habitats and their inclusion on protected and endangered species list. They don’t only want their animals to do well in private collections, but in their natural habitats as well. The latest conservation efforts and data are always shared though message boards and social media, and many keepers pride themselves on keeping up on this information.
The truth is, you may not be able to convince everyone that there is no harm in keeping these animals. I’ve run into a few instances already in which nothing I said would convince a concerned animal lover that my animals were perfectly content in my care. If I believed for a second my tarantulas were somehow suffering in captivity, I would never keep them. I honestly believe that some people just care a bit TOO much (and too irrationally). Heck, I still wonder if that poor B. smithi was really abandoned in the California desert. . .
If you’re keeping tarantulas, and you’re caring for them correctly, then you have nothing to be ashamed of. Enjoy these fascinating animals with a clear conscience as you grow your collection and continue to educate others about these amazing creatures.