Holding a tarantula at london zoo

Eight legged freaks

By Lauren Edwards

I love this time of year. There’s a glimpse of spring heading our way with lighter evenings, daffodils holding their bright yellow heads high and a light dusting of frost in the morning. But as nature wakes up, there is one unwelcome (to me) creature that still seeks a warm environment during our cold evenings…. the spider!

I know I am not alone with my lack of love towards the arachnid. In my early 20s, my fear of spiders was at an all-time ridiculous whilst staying at my parents’ house. I was home alone one Saturday morning and decided to run a bath. I glanced at the plug hole as I reached for the hot tap and saw something dark there. I guessed that it was probably hair and so ignored it and turned on the tap. As the water splashed down, the ‘hair’ sprouted legs and started running. Then, in a weird sort of race, I headed in the same direction, towards the door, as the spider ran to the end of the bath.

I closed the door and weighed up my options. There is a huge spider in the bath, the hot water is running, and I had to deal with it. Not brave enough to do anything about it myself and with no-one home to help, I remembered that the neighbour had landscapers in to redesign their front garden. So, in my irrational panic, I went outside to get help (in my pink towelling dressing gown and sheep slippers). Obligingly, one of the gardeners agreed to help. “Where’s the monster then darling?” he asked, giving his co-worker a wink as I pointed at the bathroom door murmuring, “Spider. Bath”, unable to speak in full sentences.

Mr Bravado swaggered in, as I cowered behind the door, I then heard him shout ‘Jesus he’s big!’. He emerged about five minutes later (presumably after he had calmed his nerves) balancing the spider on the end of his trowel. I responded with a strangulated whimper and then shouted ‘Thanks’ just before the door slammed. When I retold the story to my parents later, they were horrified. My Dad feared that I could crash my car if a spider popped up on my dashboard. I reasoned that I would probably pull over calmly and happily donate the car to the spider and walk back home. They were not impressed and so for my 24th birthday, they bought me an ‘Arachnophobic Day’ at London Zoo.

So, one bright and early morning, I took my seat in a conference hall within London Zoo, amongst a room full of people; mainly women with a few embarrassed looking men. First up was the ‘why spiders are good for the world’ lecture by Bob, the spider zookeeper. Bob assured us that he was once scared of spiders but was now the proud owner of three pet tarantulas. He tried to win us over by explaining how spiders are good for the environment, how they rid the world of pests such as flies and mosquitos and that we would literally be over-run by bugs if we didn’t have spiders. I agreed with him, I didn’t want to kill them, I just wanted to re-train them to not enter my house and if they accidentally did, then to walk slower and immediately go back out the way they came in rather than run towards me!

We were asked individually to say how we got rid of spiders. My response was ‘phone a friend’ or not re-enter that room until someone came home, even if this meant sitting in the hallway. The woman next to me said she wore socks on her hands when on her own and that she would walk in loud steps to scare any spiders from running into the room. She was so petrified that she couldn’t even eat tomatoes due to the spider-like green topping! I stared at her in disbelief starting to feel a bit less scared. When they asked one of the few men in the room what he did to remove spiders, he explained that he was a carpenter and would see quite a few in his work shed. The way he dealt with them was by turning on his electric sander and liquidising them. Bob was moved to tears.

Next, we were taken into an adjoining room and asked to lie on the floor. A charismatic American man introduced himself as our hypnotist and that he was there to ‘re-train our brains to like spiders’. I glanced over at the sock woman who was shaking her head. We were asked to close our eyes and to remain completely still. He asked us to visualise 10 steps leading down to a water’s edge, with us at the top of the stairs looking out to sea. We had to picture a big white cloud drifting towards us, focus on the cloud and walk slowly down the steps as he counted us down from ten.

As we reached the last step, he informed us that we were now in hypnosis. It was a really strange feeling, I tried to open my eyes and they felt stuck together and my arms felt weighted down. He told us to look at the cloud and push all our hatred of spiders into it and to turn it to grey, after which we had to blow at the cloud and watch it drift out to sea and disappear. He then counted us back up the 10 steps and we were instructed to open our eyes, which I could now do quite easily. We were then encouraged to give ourselves a round of applause as ‘we were now free from our fear of spiders’. I wasn’t convinced yet and was nervous at what was next as we were led from our function room and into the main part of the zoo.

Once inside, Bob suddenly re-appeared as if we were now in an episode of Mr Benn. In the centre of the room there was a large clear plastic box full of house spiders scampering about. Before I had time to protest, and still sleepy from the hypnosis, a plastic cup and a card was shoved in my hand and I was suddenly in a queue heading towards the spider box. With a semi-forceful ‘let’s see you catch a spider’ request, Bob picked up a house spider, released it on the table, and we were expected to put our cup over it, card underneath and then told to walk round the room and release it back into the box. Sock woman was rifling through her handbag, I suppose looking for her socks and I was third in line. Everyone seemed to be either brainwashed or cured as one-by-one they completed the exercise. I was next. Bob smiled as he flung a spider on the table. The spider, as if briefed by Bob, started to run towards me and without knowing how I did it, I put my cup over the arachnid and my card underneath and circled the room the fastest I have ever walked and literally threw my cup at the box. I did it!

Bob shouted over the excited/hysterical squeals the word “Next…” to which the whole room went deathly quiet. There’s more?! He continued, enjoying the atmosphere he was causing, “Next….we meet Freda.” Who’s Freda? His colleague? His girlfriend? Nope. It was one of his pet tarantulas! The hypnosis wasn’t that good! He picked Freda up and held her in his hand as if she were a gerbil, gently tickling its back. Most people took a few steps back. Sock woman I think was now vomiting in her handbag.

“Who wants to hold Freda and I’ll take a picture?” Bob eagerly asked. A line started to form, how were these people volunteering do this?! However, I had a word with myself. I had come this far and if I could hold Freda then I would feel super proud. So, I joined the queue and before I knew it, I was holding my hands together for Bob to place Freda on top. As he held up the camera and said ‘smile’, I looked down and then actually realised that I was holding a massive furry spider! It felt warm, it didn’t seem scary, but then it moved a leg onto my wrist and I nearly threw it across the room. Bob, sensing my change of heart, unhooked (!) Freda from my hands. He gave me my Polaroid photo, a picture of me holding a tarantula with an expression that would probably warrant me an overnight stay in an asylum!

I am sad to say it has not cured me, although it has maybe eased my irrational fear. I no longer run into the street in my dressing gown to find someone to help me. I can deal with smaller ones with the cup and card technique and I have allowed a spindly one to live in the bathroom. Bob may not have achieved his goal to help me love them like him but, thankfully, I have raised a teenager daughter with a profound love of creepy crawlies and she will always happily save the day and take the spider outside instead.

Me and Freda! How much tension do I have in my shoulders?!

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