Tarantula Controversies #1: The OBT as a Beginner T

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 was to present both sides of these gray-area arguments so that keepers could develop their own informed opinions.

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As this feature took shape, it was apparent that there were enough of these topics that to try to cover them in one blog post would prove daunting (not to mention provide for a particularly long-winded blog post). The logical decision was to instead cover these topics as a series, focusing on one issue at a time. And, I could think of no better way to kick off this feature than by starting with one of the most incendiary topics in the hobby today…

Should OBTs be kept by beginners?

AOBT

Background

Like politics, climate change, taxes, gun control, or any other hot button issues sure to spawn heated debates, the subject of OBTs in the hands of beginners is perhaps one of the most divisive and incendiary topics in the hobby today. At least once a week, some unsuspecting newcomer will start an OBT thread on Arachnoboards that quickly de-evolves from a constructive discussion to ruthless one-sided admonishment replete with petty name calling. Things heat up so quickly when this infamous animal is mentioned, that threads have been known to hit several pages in an hour.

Talk about a popcorn thread.

When I first got seriously into the hobby and was spending the majority of my free time researching which tarantula I might want to get next, I stumbled upon a blog post titled “Top Ten Beginner’s Tarantulas”. As it was currently the top site to come up with my search, I assumed that the blog must be a fairly reputable source. Although the majority of this article listed spiders I had already read were good beginners, #10 on the list was one I hadn’t encountered before…an OBT.

The Pterinochilus murinus was a stunning orange tarantula, and I was immediately fascinated by this gorgeous animal. Although the author of this list mentioned that this species was an Old World with a “bad attitude and dangerous venom”, the majority of the post detailed the ease of husbandry and hardiness. This spider immediately shot to the top of my wish list, and I set off to do some more research on it. Had I not spent the next several days scouring the boards for more info about this species, I might have immediately hopped over to Jamie’s tarantulas and snatched up a couple of the slings she had for sale.

However, a quick search revealed that this was a bit more than a spider with a “bad attitude”; in fact, this animal was literally infamous for its vicious temperament, blinding speed, potent venom, and propensity for biting. A quick review of Arachnoboard’s Bite Report section convinced me that this was a spider not to be trifled with. It didn’t take me long to determine that I wasn’t ready for the feisty beauty affectionately referred to as the “Orange Bitey Thing”.

Not all newer keepers wait to acquire this fascinating and notorious T, and this can prove quite problematic to hobbyists that consider this  species to be an “expert-level” spider. They believe that the P. murinus is potentially dangerous tarantula that is best kept in the hands and collections of seasoned keepers. However, not all agree with this assessment. On the other side of the fence, hobbyists argue that this species is okay for beginners. Although this used to be an argument favored more by folks newer to the hobby, I’ve seen at least one reputable breeder and several experienced hobbyists come out in support of this idea. Below are the arguments and counter arguments and how they usually break down. For clarity, stances supporting OBTs for beginners will be in GREEN; stances against will be in RED.

The Arguments

Ease of care is what defines a good “beginner” tarantula, and there is none easier than the OBT  The P. murinus is widely recognized as one of the hardiest Ts on the market. They do well set up as terrestrials or semi-arboreals, meaning they can adapt to just about any enclosure type. They have no moisture or temperature requirements and thrive on bone dry substrate; many folks don’t even give them water dishes due to their propensity to web them over. OBTs eat well and grow fast, meaning your precious spider will be out of its fragile sling stage quickly. Finally, they are readily available in the hobby and quite inexpensive, which makes them a great, low-risk introductory spider.

As for the OBT’s legendary and unpredictable temperament, some argue that the notoriety it receives for being hyper aggressive and fast actually renders them predictable. Informed newbies who acquire this animal will have already heard scores of stories about its nasty nature and will likely be overly cautious when working with it. Although this spider is more of a handful than other beginner tarantulas, a bit of caution and common sense would go along way. For those just getting into the hobby, this would be a great hands-off introduction to tarantula keeping.

Temperament MUST be considered when choosing a beginner tarantula, and the OBT’s attitude renders it inappropriate for a beginner. Folks in this camp tend agree that there’s more to a good “beginner level” tarantula  than ease of husbandry. Although the OBT is an undeniably hardy tarantula, with many joking that they can thrive if kept on shattered glass for a substrate, their temperaments, speed, and venom potency render them potentially dangerous in the hands of people who don’t have a lot of experience keeping tarantulas.

Although ease of husbandry is definitely a priority, temperament should also be a consideration, especially for species packing medically significant bites. A mistake with a docile tarantula, like a Grammostola or Brachypelma, could lead to a bite that is little more annoying than a bee sting; a mistake with an OBT could lead to a hospital visit. Bites from this species can lead to excruciating pain, nausea, cramping, and other unpleasant symptoms in a full-grown adult.

Transfers are also a major part of husbandry, and this is an area where OBTs can be their most troublesome. Escapes are a major concern for those working with tarantulas, and a keeper not used to these spiders’ sudden speed bursts often experience the panic of suddenly having a large spider on the loose in his or her home. For slower New World terrestrial species, this isn’t as much of an issue as they are usually easily cupped and returned to their enclosures. As for the OBT, these speedy little devils can be a nightmare to wrangle.

With proper research, and new keeper can prepare to correctly care for an OBT.  Any responsible hobbyist is sure to do adequate research for any species he or she is looking to acquire, and it’s no different with the P. murinus. Keepers new to the hobby can prepare to receive an OBT by spending some time researching this species. This research should include speaking to experienced folks, watching the YouTube videos illustrating their speed and attitude, and reading accounts from those who keep them. 

These folks also argue that NO ONE is ever really ready for a defensive and unpredictable species like the OBT, and even an experienced keeper isn’t necessary going to be any more prepared for an escape or a bolting spider than someone new to the hobby. After all, isn’t an experienced keeper who’s getting an OBT for the first time in the same boat as a newbie as neither has kept this species before? Experience is gained by doing, so the best thing to do before procuring this species is to read up and prepare.

Research isn’t enough; experience is necessary. On the other side of this debate are generally more experienced keepers and those newer to the hobby who feel that reading about a species is in no way the same as the experience garnered from actually keeping them. Many of these folks have been around long enough to see inexperienced keepers acquire this species only to later become afraid of it, and some have even acquired OBTs from folks who became terrified of them. Respect for any tarantula is necessary, but fear can can be dangerous to the keeper and the spider. This intimidation can lead to poor husbandry, as the keeper is unable to clean or rehouse their pet.

Keepers who have already worked with calmer species for a while will have honed basic skills like cleanings, feedings, and rehousings, which will make dealing with a spider that can be this defensive, fast, and unpredictable much safer. They argue that an experienced keeper getting a P. murinus for the first time might not have experience with that particular spider, but their hands-on experience with other species and an understanding of T keeping fundamentals will leave them much better prepared for mishaps.

Many keepers believe in the “Ladder System”, or the idea that people new to the hobby should work their way up to more advanced Old World species only after gaining experience by working with more docile New World beginner species. In this scenario, a keeper might start by keeping a “calm” species like a B. smithi or B. albopilosum before “graduating” to something a bit larger and more feisty, like an A. geniculata. After spending a couple years with these species, this keeper might then move to getting a beginner Old World, like E. pachypus or C. darlingi.

In this system, the keeper spends time working with tarantulas for at least a couple years as he or she develops the skills and instincts needed to successfully and safely deal with advanced species like the OBT. Proponents of this system argue that reading about spiders only gets you so far; the best knowledge comes from actually keeping them. They believe that inexperienced keepers that skip this step are setting themselves up for problems. For example, you wouldn’t give someone with only a few months of experience driving a moped a Ninja to ride; they would have to work up to the more advanced bike.

Obviously, many folks new to the hobby have kept OBTs over the years without incident, so it’s no big deal. Head to any online tarantula vendor to check out their stock, and you’re likely to find that they have plenty of P. murinus slings available for purchase (and at really low prices). The OBT has been a hobby staple for quite some time, and there’s a good chance that the majority of the hundreds, if not thousands, of slings sold each year are going to folks who are not tarantula keeping experts.

The fact is, for all of the alarm and condemnation when a newbie to the hobby procures this species, there really aren’t a lot of reports out there about a newbie losing, getting bit by, or being overwhelmed by his/her new pet. After all, if hundreds or thousands of these spiders are out there, there should in the very least be dozens of bite reports, right? In several instances, those who have been in the hobby for a while will eventually admit to acquiring an OBT early on and raising it without incident, seemingly debunking the theory that they are an “expert species”.

It puts the hobby at risk. For folks on this side of the fence, the issue also goes beyond the welfare of the individual keeper and spider; they feel that a well-publicized bite report could lead a species ban or a ban on tarantula keeping in general. In all likelihood, the majority of bites aren’t reported on public forums, meaning there is no way to tell how folks are handling this animal. However, many feel that all it would take is for one bite report to make the news in a sensationalized manner for the hobby to be put in jeopardy.

If we’re being honest, tarantula keeping is a bit of an eccentric, niche hobby. Anyone who has been in the hobby a while has gotten used to the strange, often judgmental looks when you tell folks that you like to collect giant spiders. And, as many people are very ill-informed about these animals, fallacious stories abound about deadly spiders capable of horrendous violence against their keepers and their unsuspecting families. One publicized trip to the emergency room could lead to a campaign to ban these animals by an over-zealous politician.

On a personal note, I live in Connecticut where it is already illegal to sell venomous animals (including tarantulas) in pet stores and at public conventions. Even worse, after the highly-publicized chimp attack in 2009, legislators proposed a bill that would have banned ALL exotic pets. Folks who worry about a partial or full ban on the hobby are not being alarmists; it could happen.

My $0.02.

Again, like many debatable topics, this topic really isn’t a black and white issue. If you’re a keeper who is still panicking because your spider has buried itself for a molt or who has never had to transfer a spider from one enclosure to another, you really should avoid the OBT until you have some more experience. I do feel that base experience is necessary before one attempts to keep an OBT, but I also feel the amount of experience needed is going to vary greatly from keeper to keeper. Are the majority of new keepers ready for an OBT? I’ve spoken to many over the years, and my experience tells me “no.” There are just so many basic skills necessary for this hobby that are much more easily mastered and perfected with slower New World species. However, there are those I have encountered who are more than ready, and do a great job transitioning well into keeping this feisty T.

Again, it’s not black and white.

I’ve seen many instances of new keepers announcing that they’re ready for an OBT only weeks after posting a  panicked cry for help because their T has flipped to molt. Or, they post that the transfer of their B. smithi was a total debacle, then later explain that the same thing won’t happen if they get a P. murinus. These are the types of alarming statements that raise the ire of more experienced keepers and get those OBT threads heating up…

Furthermore, I truly believe that if you’re taking to a public forum to ask if you are ready, the answer is most assuredly NO. As much as many folks would like to pretend that there are some set ground rules for who can get an OBT and when, that’s really not the case. Asking folks on a forum only evidences that the keeper is probably not ready for this animal and is looking for confirmation from other keepers (and believe me, that keeper will get it!). Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to make the responsible and informed decision as to if he or she is ready for this animal.

I do feel strongly that this is an species that should only be purchased by someone who, in the very least, has the basics of husbandry under control. This means, cleaning, recognizing common issues, feeding, transferring, and other common housekeeping aspects. As many accidents and escapes happen during rehousings, I believe that it’s particularly important that keepers have a practiced and safe system for transfers. Once you have the basics of tarantula keeping down and you’ve worked with a few species of spiders, then it might be time to consider some more advanced species.

Again, fear is dangerous in this hobby, and this species is one of the “scarier” spiders available. If you’re thinking of getting an OBT, but the idea of having one of these speedy orange devils scares you a bit, wait. Respect and caution is paramount when dealing with fast-moving defensive spiders; fear can lead to mistakes which then lead to a bite or a dead spider.

I do believe that some individuals are just more inherently capable of correctly caring for an OBT and dealing with its attitude without as much experience as others. That’s a fact. However, it’s not up to me or other keepers to determine who those folks are. I have noticed that many of the folks that post about getting one on the forums seem to be the ones I would rather not have them.

I also think that this species should be for adults only. There is also the very real issue of younger keepers who are still living at home acquiring this species. Although OBTs will not kill you with their venom, a bite from this species will definitely make an adult individual miserable. Now, imagine for a moment that one of these spiders escapes and ends up biting the family dog, cat, or a child in the house. By their nature, teenagers, can be a bit reckless. Heck, I used to be one, and I still marvel at some of the less-than-informed decisions I’ve made. Hop on YouTube and you can find a plethora of videos featuring younger keepers proudly displaying reckless behavior with their Ts, and more than a few featuring the OBT.

Obviously, there are likely some fine young keepers out there who innately possess the maturity and skills needed to safely care for this animal. However, I do think that parents need to be informed and a big part of the decision process for a teen who is looking to acquire a P. murinus, as a mistake could affect the whole household. In the very least, a younger keeper still living at home needs to do his or her best to inform parents or anyone else in the household about these animals so that a decision can be made as a family as to whether or not to keep one.

Final thoughts

The P. murinus is a gorgeous and amazing species of tarantula that I personally believe is a great addition to any collection. That being said, it’s notoriety as a vicious, unpredictable speed demon is well deserved, meaning that this is a species not to be trifled with. A quick glance at bite reports for this species illustrate that it is quick to bite, will bite repeatedly, and its strong venom can produced intense pain and lingering full-body cramping.

In other words, the OBT has all the makings for a really bad day.

That said, responsible keepers with a modicum of common sense and a basic understanding of tarantulas and their husbandry might be tempted to keep this unique an notorious spider. However, before any hobbyist, new or experienced,  brings one of these Ts into the home, she should ask herself, “am I ready?”