Tarantulas are harmless: True/False?

Their bite won’t stop your heart, at least, though a tarantula doesn’t really need fangs, if you ask me. The mere sight of a huge, hairy, eight-legged creature approaching would be enough to make me lie down and surrender. But then I’m just not a spider person. Those who are already know that the typical tarantula is no more dangerous than a cat.

Misinformation surrounds the tarantula. Their name comes from the Italian city Taranto, and there is a wolf spider associated with Taranto which in the fifteenth century was supposed to cause tarantism, the cure for which was to dance a tarantella (yes, really). But what we usually call a tarantula today is an unrelated kind of spider from the Americas. Another term, bird spider, has a little more credibility, as some tarantulas do eat birds, but it’s a bit like calling humans the bungy-jumping apes.

There are hundreds of species of tarantula. They are big, hairy and generally their venom causes no more trouble than a bee sting. Tarantulas can hurl hairs in self-defence, which can prove quite an irritation, but they’re hardly ninja stars. In fact tarantulas are quite fragile — bigger isn’t always better — and a fall from a tabletop can be a death sentence.

So its pretty clear that the stereotypical first reaction to a tarantula — a scream or dead faint — is undeserved. On the whole a tarantula is probably less dangerous than a cat or dog, it doesn’t leave little surprises on the living room carpet, and it doesn’t need a daily walk. And a tarantula certainly delivers terrific value for money in the legs and eyes departments. In many respects it is the ideal pet.

You still won’t catch me courting the attention of a tarantula, but that’s just my arachnophobia talking. I know in my head that tarantulas are fascinating, harmless critters with every right to exist — it’s just the rest of my body is harder to convince. So if you’re a friend to the tarantula, good for you, just don’t expect me to join in the fun.

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