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Monday, February 18, 2008

THE AMERICAN TARANTULA SOCIETY



I founded the American Tarantula Society (ATS) in 1978, and managed it for three years. It has since gone defunct. Many years later I was surprised to find online another "American Tarantula Society." I must admit I was upset that a new group of people had adopted the name of the society I had founded; and whereas the first ATS was both educational and fun, this later group, founded in 1991, seemed scholarly and stuffy. Inside the cover of this later ATS's publication, Forum, it says: "The American Tarantula Society (a non-profit organization) was founded in 1991 (first published 1992) to promote the study and the dissemination of information primarily concerning the arachnid infraorder Mygalomorphae, especially Theraphosidae, but also to include other Araneae, and other arachnid orders (exclusive of Acari), and" so forth.

So I wrote to this second American Tarantula Society's magazine editor, Robert Gale Breene III, pointing out that they were using my club's name and that it's not the first ATS. I was surprised to learn that he had never heard of the first one. To make amends, he suggested that I write an article about the first ATS, and that he would publish it verbatim. He was true to his word, and my following article was published in the July/August 1997 issue of Forum.

The First ATS
Dale Lund
Branson, Missouri USA


Mr. Whan, my biology teacher,
who helped me get my first tarantula
Once upon a time, in 1964, when tarantulas were practically unheard of as pets, I obtained a pet tarantula. I happened to see that one could order these spiders---live---through the Biological Supply Company's catalog at school, and asked my freshman high school biology teacher about my getting one. He ordered two, one for the school and one for me.

Having always been terrified of insects and spiders, this was a major step for me. The tarantula was the big daddy of all such critters, and had frequented my nightmares. But seeing that huge spider step carefully and gracefully out of the box in the back room of Mr. Whan's biology class drastically changed my life.

It took two years to get up enough nerve to hold my new pet, but so began years of fascination. Excited simply about getting one, I knew nothing about caring for it, and so wrote to Alice Gray, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, to find out how to keep it alive. A correspondence developed, and more and more I learned about these amazing and grossly misunderstood creatures.

Years passed, until in a college creative writing class, I wrote an article on "Tarantulas as Pets." My instructor suggested my trying to get it published. Having always enjoyed T.F.H. (Tropical Fish Hobbyist) pet booklets, I sent the short manuscript to T.F.H. Publications, Inc., who promptly rejected it saying that tarantulas were not popular as pets.

What could I lose? I wrote back telling them they were making a mistake. Tarantulas were beginning to appear in pet shops, and at the time there was virtually no information concerning their care. I received from T.F.H. a less subtle rejection. So I sat on it, and after four months Neil Pronek of T.F.H. wrote, saying, "Maybe you were more on the track than I was." He said they would be interested in publishing my manuscript, if I were to expand it five times in length and include photos.

Everything I knew about tarantulas was in that article, and so I found myself scraping for more information. There was only one other book in print on tarantulas at the time, and that was a children's picture book. Dr. William Baerg's fine book, The Tarantula, was out of print, but I managed to acquire a copy. At one point I sat in the dark basement archives of the University of Washington, trying to decipher German! But surprisingly, my second manuscript was exactly five times the length of the first, and T.F.H. called it "excellent." I managed with a friend's help to supply two of the lesser quality photos in my book, and T.F.H., taking a hundred dollars from my pay, supplied the rest, along with captions. Instead of "Tarantulas as Pets" they entitled it "All About Tarantulas." I received a flat fee of $400 for my efforts. But I was elated. I was finally an author. This was 1977.

But then came the letters from readers desiring more information, with questions I couldn't answer. And the idea came to me to start a newsletter in which these questions could be published and hopefully answered by the pooled knowledge of the readership. I was a teller at Seattle-First National Bank in Bellingham, Washington then, and of course everyone thought I was crazy. Nevertheless, in 1978 the American Tarantula Society was founded in the bank's break room, and the publication of our bimonthly newsletter, Tarantula Times, began. I had no computer. The newsletter was painstakingly typed on a manual typewriter, pasted up on a drafting board, and brought to a local print shop for reproduction.

I first advertised the ATS directly, sending letters to people I hoped would be interested, and, to find more knowledgeable people to help us, I gave free memberships to arachnologists I found in Who's Who at the public library. I never used a mailing list service. Needless to say, our membership grew very slowly at first. But somehow the local newspaper, the Bellingham Herald, learned about this tarantula club based in this northwestern city, and invited me for lunch and an interview.

The reporter later told me not to be surprised if this article were picked up by wire services and published nationwide. Well, it was. Suddenly our membership picked up, with people mailing in their $5 dues from all over the country. Next came People magazine, which, after a telephone interview, published a full-page article, with photos, in the Feb. 5, 1979 issue. Our membership flourished. And after the ATS appeared in the Potpourri section of the August 1979 issue of Playboy, I was overwhelmed with new members. By the time I retired from almost single-handedly running the ATS in 1981, we had over 500 members in 13 countries. And not once did I seek publicity for the club. It just came, as did the material for the newsletter. Information from tarantula enthusiasts poured in.

My days as a bank teller were not easy ones. Besides the stress of the job itself, I would often be interrupted by phone calls from radio stations around the U.S. and Canada wanting instant live interviews. I would be invited for public appearances, and even though cursed with stage fright I would, for the sake of tarantula PR, never say no. Several letters would come in everyday, and I would answer them immediately. I would process new memberships the same day the dues were received. At such a low price, $5 per year, later increasing to $7, it was common for people to give ATS memberships as unique gifts to people "who had everything," and our members were varied and interesting. I felt a kinship with these wonderful people; and if I ran into a club decision that confounded me, it was not uncommon for me actually to telephone an ATS member at random to ask advice.

Although we were just beginning to learn about the tarantula, rather than gathering more scientific data or discovering and naming new species, our focus was mainly on trying to end the general fear and hatred most people had for these spiders. We hoped that in trying to lessen the ignorant killing of tarantulas by people who shared my old nightmares, we would make up for any instability caused by the pet trade.

Although the Tarantula Times was full of valuable and new information, one of the best things about it was its human interest. We obtained permission from both Dr. Baerg himself and his publisher to reprint his entire book chapter by chapter. We also enjoyed profiles of our members, some which had nothing to do with tarantulas. We were a family of people who wanted to end ignorance, and periodically a directory of members would appear in the newsletter, complete with addresses and phone numbers, so we could get better acquainted. We had a contest for the best drawings for our younger members, with first prize being a live tarantula. And on May 20, 1979, in Bellingham, Washington, we held The First Northwest ATS Potluck in the History of the World, with 30-plus people in attendance. Rick West was our special guest.

We regularly enjoyed brief letters from one of our youngest members, Matt Walker of Virginia. Through little Matt's membership, we finally talked his mother into getting a pet tarantula for the boy. Matt let us know he was elated with his new pet, Fuzzy. At the same time, we enjoyed regular poems from one of our older members, Peter Lisk of Michigan. One of his poems was called "A Tarantula I Wish I Was," and in the following issue, little Matt wrote, "Dear Dale, The magazine was great. Tell the guy who wrote A Tarantula I Wish I Was, that I liked that poem, it was real good. Fuzzy died last night, but I'm getting a new tarantula."

It was no coincidence that in the issue to follow, Lisk included his poem, "Tarantula Heaven." Our ATS was something very special. I wouldn't trade those three years for anything.

Finally, I became overwhelmed with its success. Along with a full-time job and growing family, I devoted an average of two hours per day to the ATS, and it began to take its toll. Toward the end of the three years, I would advertise my position in each issue of the newsletter. Why no one would offer to take over a club of 500 and a bimonthly newsletter, on a volunteer basis, I could not understand.

Around that time, we had a member in New Jersey whose enthusiasm and energy seemed limitless, and although he was only about 15, he seemed to me to be almost a genius and mature for his age. I began to press him to take over the mechanics of the club. At first he refused, but eventually agreed, and I thereby retired and happily shipped six large and heavy packages of ATS materials and supplies to him, along with my assurance that I would walk him through the transition until he felt confident on his own. His name was John Browning.

Months passed. No word. No newsletter. I began to sweat. Finally I began trying to call him, until he hung up on me, and then I tried to reach his parents, who finally said, "He's just a boy!" Then began the struggle trying to retrieve the valuable material I had sent him. After about six months of trauma and my risking charges of harassment, his parents finally shipped back the packages. Along with them came six months of unopened mail, including many checks. Overcome with frustration, I responded to every letter and returned every check, informing the senders that the ATS was defunct. It was a sad time.

In the years to follow, more than one friend and former ATS member tried to revive the club. The most commendable effort came from Monty Johnson of Ferndale, Washington, who published several excellent issues of a new Tarantula Times in little magazine format. But he, too, was overwhelmed with the effort involved, and passed it on to another fellow who simply "merged" the ATS with a British arachnological organization, and our club was no more.

I was surprised years later, in 1995, after getting a computer, to find a web page for the American Tarantula Society! Come to find out, this new organization shared little more with the original ATS than the name. It was as if they had never heard of the original. I introduced myself by mail to the staff, and was sent a complimentary copy of Forum. The wealth of information on tarantulas learned since 1981 is awesome!

Lately I've had the pleasure of corresponding with the editor of the ATS and he has greatly impressed me as a very knowledgeable man and of good character. I am encouraged at the progress made in the study of tarantulas.

I'm happy to say that now I live in the Ozarks, where these spiders are found in the wild. It now appears to be common knowledge that tarantulas are not dangerous as once supposed, and fewer people go out of their way to kill them, and so our efforts begun decades ago are reaching fruition. You of the new ATS are doing a great work, and I am very encouraged by it. Thank you for putting the pieces back together and making them bigger still.
____________________

Note:  The "Tarantula Times" newsletter of the original American Tarantula Society is now online at http://picasaweb.google.com/105167236036263303222/TarantulaTimes#
Easy instructions on pet tarantula care can be found at http://oldelephantwings.blogspot.com/2008/06/how-to-care-for-your-pet-tarantula.html

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1 comment:

  1. Well now that was very interesting, but I still DO NOT LIKE THEM....never held Alice had NO desire to hold Alice nor any other big or small spider!!! Amazed at how many (just plain spiders) we have this fall, I didn't have to decorate to much this Halloween!!! S.B.

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