Overcoming Arachnophobia… with Tarantulas!

My name is Billy, and I’m an arachnophobe!

However, I decided to conquer my lifelong fear of spiders, and I did so in a way that will probably surprise anyone else who is similarly afflicted – I started keeping tarantulas!

I’m living, breathing proof that arachnophobia can be overcome, and I believe that anyone who wants to can face, fight, and beat (or at least control) their fear of spiders. Before I get into that though, let me tell you how it all started.

I’ve been frightened of spiders for as long as I can remember. As a child, if I found a spider in my bedroom I would shout for my parents to come and remove it. After removing it (in an upturned glass and a piece of card) I would then be paranoid that there might be another one, and search the room high and low until I was satisfied it was clear!

This paranoia followed me into adulthood, but rather than call for my parents I’d call for my wife. Even if she was asleep in bed, if I found a spider I’d have to wake her up and get her to dispose of it.  I’m always the first person to spot a spider, and speaking to other sufferers I find that’s a common trait – our fear heightens our senses and we’re able to detect the smallest spider in our peripheral vision, long before anyone else notices.

Now I’m not normally a fearful sort of chap, nor am I normally in the least bit squeamish about animals, or “creepy crawlies”. I’ve been keeping all sorts of other exotic animals for many years, including other invertebrates. Over the years I’ve kept all manner of snakes, lizards, and insects, plus potentially “dangerous” mammals including coatis, large breed dogs and more. I’ve always been happy to handle crickets, and locusts, and millipedes, and beetles… but for some reason, something about spiders has always affected me.

September has always been troublesome. At the end of the summer, when the temperatures start to drop, it is breeding season for spiders. That’s when mature males go wandering in search of a mate, and that’s when “giant” house spiders (here in the UK it’s the mature males of the genus Tegenaria which cause arachnophobes the most problems!) seem to be everywhere. At this time of year it’s not uncommon for these “giant spiders” to be found in the bath, on the wall in the bedroom, or even running across the living room floor when watching TV on quite a regular basis, sometimes more than once a day. It really can seem that they are “out to get you” and any fellow arachnophobes reading this will know exactly what I mean!

 

Common House Spider (Tegenaria domestica) - The bane of every aranophobes life!

Common House Spider (Tegenaria domestica) – The bane of every arachnophobes life!

 

How bad was my arachnophobia?

“It’s just a little spider”, “It can’t hurt you” and “It’s more afraid of you, than you are of it” are the three phrases you get used to hearing time and time again as an arachnophobe. The first two are generally true (here in the UK there are no native spiders with a medically significant bite) but the third most definitely is not!

Before facing my arachnophobia, even a picture of a large spider was enough to give me a strong physical response. My heart rate would increase, I’d feel my muscles tense and a sense of “panic” and heightened alertness. My palms would sweat, and for some time afterwards I’d have spiders on my mind. I’d be wary of dark cupboard, or small spaces. I’d even flinch if the dog walked past and brushed his tail against my leg!

Before facing my arachnophobia, even a picture of a large spider was enough to give me a strong physical response.

It didn’t even take a photo to illicit such a response – if someone left a glass upside down I would get the same response – I’d instantly assume it had been used to catch and remove a spider from the house, and I’d tense up and feel a slight panic!

Of course the most significant response was from real spiders. On many occasions over the years I’ve shouted to call my wife (or my parents when I was a child) to urgently come and catch a spider. I’d panic that if it wasn’t caught quickly, fearful that it would “escape” and hide somewhere out of reach, so I’d “stand guard” while she came with a glass to remove it. If it was on the floor, I’d invariably climb up on the sofa or the bed, so it couldn’t “run at me”! When it was caught in a glass with a piece of card over the top, I’d be transfixed on it, and it wouldn’t leave my sight until it was safely outside (in case it escaped from the glass!) and I’d insist the windows be closed in case it came back in!

If all this sounds a bit silly and over the top, you’d be right, but you’d also not be arachnophobic. If you are, then all of this will probably sound very familiar. And I know there are people much worse than I ever was. A few years ago I looked into attending a hypnotherapy course at Bristol Zoo, and apparently, on one occasion, they had someone on the course who would scream every time anyone said the word spider!

Fighting the fear

As a reptile enthusiast, I’ve regularly come into fairly close proximity with tarantulas over the years. Most zoos have tarantulas in the reptile house (which is always the part of the zoo I tend to spend the most time in!) and pet stores which sell reptiles invariably also sell Ts. In fact, one local reptile specialist always concerned me since you had to walk past the tarantulas in order to get to the snakes and lizards. For the last few years they have kept all their T enclosures behind large locked glass doors, but in the past they were merely kept in plastic faunariums on shelves, which always looked so easy to knock off… needless to say I was always rather tense in that shop, and happy to leave despite wanting to see the reptiles!

Magazines and web sites are often the same – many times I’d open my latest copy of Pet Reptile only to be confronted with a big picture of a Mexican Red Knee, or a Goliath Birdeater staring back at me!

This was a mixed blessing really, as it started my desensitisation process. I would often force myself to have a good look, even though it made my heart race.

When I was at university, a student in the flat opposite ours had a Chilean Rose (Grammostola rosea). I was always extremely cautious going into that flat (students are well known for their “practical jokes” after all) but it turned out he was nearly as scared of it as I was, and luckily never handled it, at least as long as I lived there.

But it wasn’t until moving into our first house with my wife in 2007 that I gave the idea of keeping a tarantula a second thought. Cress would mention it from time to time, often as we walked past the tarantulas in a reptile shop on our way to buy frozen rats, or crickets for my reptiles. For the longest time I dismissed these comments as jovial, and insisted it would never happen. Over time though, I began to wonder about the possibility of one day overcoming my fear and being able to keep one. They were fascinating after all, even though they scared me.

Over time a plan began to hatch. I really wanted to get over and cure, or at least reduce, my fear of spiders. Cress kept bringing the subject up, and I had one thing in my favour – I wasn’t too scared of very small spiders. A baby tarantula (spiderling, often abbreviated to just sling) is very small indeed. I began to wonder that if we got a sling, and I got used to it, then as it grew my fear might slowly diminish. After all, if I could tolerate a spider 1cm across, and it grew very slowly I’d not notice as it slowly get bigger and bigger.

I bought a book on tarantulas and read it cover to cover, feeling rather tense with each page turn since some of the pictures looked totally “horrific” to me at the time. We both researched online, learning about different species, how to house them, feed them, and most importantly how to prevent them from escaping!

Eventually we made a decision… we would get a baby (sling) Mexican Red Knee tarantula (Brachypelma smithi). It was a species that ticked most of the boxes (slow growing, slow moving, not generally considered aggressive, mild venom just in case… and most importantly for me, not too hideous looking!) We agreed this with a couple of firm conditions from me:

1. The tarantula would be my wife’s responsibility, she would feed it, clean the enclosure etc and I would never have to open the lid.
2. It would be kept in a secure enclosure with a securely locked lid!

slingWe searched and eventually found a dealer with a suitably sized specimen, and made the purchase. As you can imagine, I was extremely nervous when it was brought into the house. We put the dogs out the back, placed her new enclosure into a very large plastic box on the dining room table, and Cress proceeded to transfer the sling from her travel tub into her new enclosure, while I stood at the other end of the room shouting “helpful” guidance at her ;)

That was it, that was the first step to both curing my arachnophobia, and my first step on a journey to a lifelong fascination with tarantulas!  Over the coming weeks and months I watched that tarantula go about its life, safely inside its plastic cage.  I watched it eat, and burrow, and clean itself, and moult, and over time I began to become desensitised.  At the same time, I read a number of books about tarantulas and spiders in general, and spent a lot of time on websites and forums learning, asking questions, and slowly but surely breaking my fear.

Fast forward and we now have a growing collection of tarantulas, and I’ve grown to be quite happy with them in the house. My arachnophobia is still with me, but much reduced. I can now open a lid and drop a cricket in, or top up a water bowl, or even nudge a tarantula into a temporary tub for cage maintenance… and I can even do that when I’m the only one at home if necessary! In fact, last year I bought my wife a Honduran Curly Hair tarantula (Brachypelma albopilosum) as a surprise Christmas present.  I had the spider couriered to me, unpacked it, and transferred it into a new enclosure I’d set up, all by myself without my wife knowing.  I then “hid” that enclosure in my office for more than 2 weeks before Christmas – something I’d have never even considered just a couple of years ago!

This is a HUGE improvement, and over time I expect I’ll become even more comfortable around these amazing creatures (we’ve even been discussing some of the more “advanced” species like Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens (Green Bottle Blue), some of the fast semi-arboreal Avicularia species, and even some of the beautiful but notoriously fast and venomous Poecilotheria species (affectionately known as Pokies!) as possible future additions to our collection!  I still consider myself arachnophobic.  I still tense if I see a large house spider, but now I can control it – I can get a glass, catch it, and put it outside… and then forget about it!  That’s the best part, I no longer worry about seeing a spider for the rest of the evening, or struggle to get to sleep if one was found in the bedroom!

My arachnophobia was a major factor in my introduction to the hobby of keeping Ts, and was also a major factor in my decision to start this web site. I know what it feels like to live with a fear of spiders, and I now also know that it can be beaten. I’m not suggesting that anyone with arachnophobia rush out and buy a tarantula, but I did want to let people know that with time, patience and a little “getting out of your comfort zone” that it is possible to suppress a phobia. If you have a similar story, or want to ask any questions about how I’m beating my fear please do contact me, I’d love to hear from you and I’d be happy to offer any advice I can!

Update – read my post about my progress after 1 year of keeping tarantulas – arachnophobia cured!