|Having a pet tarantula, as late as 1979, was so rare that someone informed me that I was in Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not!|
December 11, 1964
Very few animals are as easy to care for as a tarantula, despite the fact that it will eat nothing but living creatures a little smaller than itself. Fortunately, it does not need to eat often. (Once a week is plenty.) Sometimes one refuses to eat at all during the winter. (Naturally, of course, it would be hibernating in its burrow during the cold season, if it is of a kind that lives where there is any cold season.) Large insects are the tarantula's natural prey. It will enjoy crickets and grasshoppers more than hard-shelled beetles. Some tarantulas will eat cockroaches, some will not. (Cockroaches defend themselves by giving off an offensive odor, and maybe the taste is just as bad.) I always have a colony of meal-worm beetles with which to feed my tarantulas, but if I lived in the country I could find wild insects for them, even in the winter. They would like big grubs from rotten logs, for instance. A tarantula will also eat baby mice. I think you might be able to trick one into taking dead meat -- say a piece of liver -- by tying the meat to a thread and jiggling it in front of the spider, but I have not tried it..
A tarantula needs water unless it is fed on many juicy insects. I use a heavy glass castor cup for a dish. The spider can get right in without upsetting it. (A spider's mouth is very awkwardly located for drinking from a dish.) One drink a week is enough. A tarantula which seems very weak -- as though it could hardly stand, and which looks shriveled, is probably just very thirsty. Put it in a dish with a little water and it will probably plump up and revive immediately. Not uncommonly a tarantula which has been a long time in transit in a mailing tube or box will arrive in this condition.
If you see your tarantula lying on its back looking dead, it is getting ready to molt. Tarantulas do this at least once a year, usually in the spring. Young ones molt four times a year, and "teen-agers" twice. Usually the spider makes itself a silk rug on which to lie while taking off its old tight skin. The shedding operation takes the better part of a day. The new skin is soft at first, and much more brightly colored than the old one. It fades, in time.
Try to get an immature tarantula or a mature female. (No one can tell these apart without killing them. The mature male has thumb-like hooks under the knees of the front legs, and is lighter of body and longer of leg than the female.) The reason is that a mature male does not live more than a year at most after becoming adult. The female may live for 10 years longer. It takes either sex about 10 to 12 years to grow up. Males are easier to catch than females, as they leave their burrows in the fall to search for mates. You can see them crossing roads and casting huge shadows before the headlights of your car. You have to dig for the females and immature specimens. Most specimens offered for sale are males.
You will need a tight cage for your tarantula. One good kind is made from a small fish tank with a wire cover. I use gallon jars. A cafeteria kitchen saves them for me. The wide-mouthed kind is better than the narrow-mouthed ones because it is easier to get out your hand with the spider in or on it.
If you use a jar, cut out the middle of the lid with tin snips and make a circle of screen to fit inside. Use the cardboard lining as a pattern for the wire one. Be sure the lid can be screwed onto the jar. A tarantula can line its jar with silk too fine for you to notice but strong enough to give the spider a firm foothold for lifting the lid. If the cover is loose, the spider will get out some night, and you will be lucky if you ever find it.
If your tarantula is a North American one, it will surely want to dig a burrow. If you give it enough earth, it will bury itself. If you want to prevent that, put a thin layer of sand in the bottom of the cage. If you want to see the borrowing, make the earth in the cage as deep as you can. If you put a smaller jar inside the big one, upside down, and cover that with earth, the spider will have to make its burrow in the space between the two walls of glass where you can look into it. Make a dark paper cover for the cage to keep it dark so that spider will not try to cover the glass with earth. (Most tropical tarantulas also make burrows, but some live in trees and make silk tunnels instead.)
If you occasionally remove from the cage the remains of the spider's prey, you may never have to clean the cage further. Spider excrement is a thick chalky fluid which dries with scarcely any odor, and which you may not notice unless you look for it. In an earth-filled cage it just disappears. The spider does not mind it. I usually empty the jar, wash it, and put in clean earth about once a year.
Keep your cage out of direct sunlight. That can make the inside of the cage hot enough to kill even a desert animal like a tarantula. Do not let it freeze either. It does occasionally snow where tarantulas live, but the ground never freezes. In general, the hotter it is the more active the spider will be, the harder it will be to handle it, and the more it will eat and drink. Tarantulas are nocturnal. One which is sluggish and easily handled by day may be nervous and hard to handle at night.
There are two ways of picking up a tarantula. If you want to control it and to look at the under side, grasp it by the sides of the front part of the body between the bases of the second and third pairs of legs. Usually as soon as you press down on the back to take hold the spider will crouch and pull up its legs, which makes the operation easy. When you hold it this way, its feet cannot reach your hand and the animal is helpless. It usually holds perfectly still as long as there is nothing in contact with its feet. As soon as it can touch anything it will try to get away.
The other way to handle the spider is to put your hand in front of it and touch its rear gently to make it walk on. Try not to let it get its claws into any rough material such as cloth. If that happens, you cannot make the tarantula let go without hurting it; you have to goad it gently into walking off of its own accord. And do be very careful not to let your spider fall off your hand. If it drops on the floor it will burst like a paper bag full of jelly. (Tree tarantulas are different. They are light-bodied, long-legged, and built for jumping; but burrowing ones are not made for climbing or falling, and they are not very good at holding on to things as smooth as your hand or the edge of a table.)
If you should be bitten by your tarantula, treat the injury like any other puncture. It may make you sore and feverish for a few days, but it will do you no serous harm.
Yours very truly,
January 18, 1965
I know of only one person who has ever reared tarantulas from the egg to the adult stage in captivity. The process takes about twelve years, so not many people care to do it. It is legal to import them and to sell them -- no permit needed, as they are not and cannot become pests. Post office regulations require that they be shipped in containers which protect both the animal and the postman from the possibility of injury.
There are tarantulas in South America and perhaps in the African and Asiatic tropics which are much larger than ours and are reputed to be more venomous, but there is very little actual evidence of their effect upon people. No doubt some people are more sensitive than others, and probably a few have died as the result of a tarantula bite -- I would suspect that the cause of death was infection rather than poisoning. Nobody can be allergic to something he has not previously encountered, so unless you associate with tarantulas you can't be allergic to them. A boy who cared for mine for two years became allergic to their hairs -- they gave him a rash like poison ivy. Dr. Gertsch, our spider expert, is also allergic to this degree, but not yet severely so to the bite, though he has been bitten many times. Yes, a person repeatedly bitten would probably become less and less sensitive to the venom -- unless, of course, he became allergic instead. I suppose even a person who was allergic could be de-sensitized by repeated small doses of venom, but it would have to be done by an expert allergist. Shock may be due simply to terror, in which case anyone may experience it, or to allergy, which affects only the previously sensitized.
I think an adult tarantula could live in a cool wet climate for a long time, but I don't think it would eat unless the weather got warm sometime, and eventually it might starve to death. Growth of a young tarantula is so much affected by temperature that it might take one twenty years or more to mature in a cold climate. Our species can survive weather cold enough for snow to fall, but not for it to last more than a few days. During the cold weather the spiders are underground, where the temperature never drops to freezing. Whatever the reason, it is a fact that tarantulas don't live in cool wet places, although there is no barrier between such places and those where the spiders are plentiful.
I don't know whether or not tarantulas will eat earthworms, but I think they will. They will try to eat anything, that moves, if it is not too big. I expect they will even eat a piece of juicy meat if you tie it to a thread and jerk it a little.
So far as I know, burrowing tarantulas don't like to climb. They will climb up your arm rather than jump off your hand, but if they can go down easily, they will. When one gets away from me, I always look on the floor under things till I find it.
I never tried to train a tarantula. I think they are too stupid. So are fleas -- but you must have heard of flea circuses. The fleas are not really trained. The owner just makes use of things fleas do naturally, and makes them look like tricks. If you order your spider to do what you know he is going to do anyhow, it will seem that he is obeying you.
Tarantula silk would make a lovely fabric if you could get enough of it, but the cost of production is too high for that to be practical. I do not know of any commercial use for spider silk of any sort now. Black Widow silk used to be used for crosshairs in optical instruments -- but there is something better now -- I don't know what.
I don't know whether or not tarantulas can swim -- I should think not, they are so heavy. Why not try and see? You can always rescue the spider if it can't swim.
For directions on breeding and rearing tarantulas, you need the book "The Tarantula" by William J. Baerg. He's the one person who has done it. The book was published by the University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, Kansas, in 1958. It is still in print, and costs $3.00. A bookstore could order it for you.
Yours very truly,
(Miss) Alice Gray
January 19, 1965
If you are 15 and very interested in tarantulas, you ought certainly be allowed to have as many as you like. Babies play with them in tropical countries! (Well, toddlers, anyhow.) Here are a few people who may be able to supply you eventually. None of them are dealers. They just happen to be interested in spiders and to live where there are tarantulas. They are all friends -- or at least correspondents -- of mine, and you may say that I suggested that you write to them. This is the off season on males. They mature in the autumn, and are easily caught then. At this season, the spiders will take some finding. They will be deep in their holes. Unless you are lucky enough to find that someone has spares already captive, you'll probably have to wait till next summer.
The likeliest source is David B. Richman, P.O. Box 821, Yuma, Ariz. Dave is not many years older than you. He has sent me many scorpions and other desert creatures, but spiders are his particular interest. Several of my young friends here trade specimens with him regularly.
The next most probable supplier is the Dr. W.J. Baerg who wrote the little book about tarantulas which I told you about in the letter I sent you yesterday. He has now retired from teaching at the University and lives at 1010 Park St., Fayetteville, Ark. When he was here about two years ago he said he would sell live tarantulas for $2.00 each, when he has them. He has a lively sympathy for anyone who wants them as pets, since he has pet tarantulas all the time himself. It might be politic to get his book and study it before writing to him. If you can talk about it intelligently he will be flattered and more inclined to put himself to trouble to help you.
If this doesn't work, write to Mr. Hal Gras, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, P.O. Box 5602, Tucson, Ariz. This museum is really a zoo. Mr. Gras is public relations man there, and has a T.V. program about the desert animals. Of course there are tarantulas at the museum. I don't think Mr. Gras would have any himself, but I do think he would know several young people who could get you some. They are very abundant in spots around Tucson.
I wish I could give you a pair myself -- but none of the ones I have now is really mine. They all belong to the Museum. Whenever I have one of my own, I give it away to someone who has very much the same problem as you have -- they want a tarantula more than anything, and can't get one anywhere. I don't think I have any chance of getting one to give away before next summer, if then.
Good luck in the tarantula hunt! Do let me know how it turns out.
Yours very truly,
March 4, 1965
Yes, a tarantula is perfectly healthy if it stands motionless for hours or even days. It is wonderfully capable of conserving energy in this manner. I suspect that it is active at night, but have little evidence of that. Apparently the spiders don't move unless they have provocation, at least during daylight.
To feed a tarantula, just drop a live and kicking insect into the cage with it. If the spider is hungry, it will waste no time in seizing the prey. If it isn't hungry, the intended meal can go on living in the cage till it dies of old age or starvation. Some of my tarantulas have refused food for months, during the winter. I suppose that in nature they hibernate at this season. In the hot summer weather the tarantulas eat almost every time they have a chance. Don't worry about starving your spider. Just be sure it was water to drink about once a week, and it will thrive.
No. It is never safe to put more than one tarantula in the same cage. If the cage were a very large one and the spiders were allowed to burrow in the natural way, females might make their retreats at a safe distance apart and then stay within a short distance of home, but you can't count on it.
The eyes of a tarantula are very little shiny round dots clumped together around a little knob or bump on top of the cephalothorax just behind the middle of the front edge. It is easy to see them in a cast skin, as they are then transparent. You have only to hold the shield of the cephalothorax up to the light and the eyes will look like holes.
I am sorry to hear that Baerg's book "The Tarantula" is out of print, but since it is I am glad to know it. I will stop suggesting that people buy it. A Xerox copy will probably be expensive, but it will be satisfactory, except that photographs will not be reproduced successfully. I own a person copy of the book in addition to the Museum library copy which I can use, so if you wish I will lend you mine. I should expect to get it back in good condition in a reasonable length of time.
Yours very truly,
March 12, 1965
You are getting observant, are you not? That little hole in the middle of the "carapace" of the cephalothorax (head and thorax combined) of the tarantula is an "apodeme," a place where the external skeleton is pushed in, like the finger of a glove turned outside in, to give attachment to the musbles that move the legs. All animals with external skeletons have many such apodemes, and their location is always betrayed by the little pit on the surface. Sometimes apodemes from opposite sides of the body meet and grow together in the middle, forming a functionally internal skeleton, but the "linings" of the tubular rods are shed whenver the animal molts. The head of an insect has such an internal skeleton, called the "tentorium," to carry the muscles of the mouth parts. There are four external pits marking the pints where the arms of the tentorium are pushed in.
I will send you my Tarantula book as soon as I get it back from whoever has it now. I don't remember to whom I lent it, but I think it will come home eventually. It always has. Please be patient. I will inquire around and see if I can locate the book. It is not large, so the cost of shipping will be too small to bother about, but it was nice of you to offer to pay for that.
Yours very truly,
April 14, 1965
You are the first person of whom I have heard to feed a tarantula with dog food! I shall certainly remember your success for future emergencies. [I squeezed a clump of canned dogfood on the end of a thread and jiggled it in front of the spider. She grabbed and ate it.]
The "auxiliary legs" in front of the tarantula's walking legs are called "pedipalps." That means "foot-feelers." The description is accurate. They are legs slightly specialized to serve as sense organs, not of touch alone, but of chemical perception as well.
The finger-like organs at the rear of the spider are spinnerets. They also are converted legs. The present function is the manipulation of silk as it is drawn out through countless microscopic tubes on the tips of the spinnerets. Tarantulas are primitive spiders, less dependent upon silk than more highly evolved families, but they do make it and use it for nest linings and egg cases.
The globular abdomen contains most of the viscera of the spider. Silk glands take a lot of space, though not so much as in higher spiders. The reproductive, excretory, and respiratory systems are in the abdomen, and so are parts of the digestive and circulatory systems. The space between the organs is full of soft white fat and colorless blood. If you drop a tarantula on the floor, the abdomen will burst like a paper bag full of custard. It kills the tarantula, of course.
Yours very truly,
March 7, 1966
Indeed, I do remember you and your interest in tarantulas, though I think you have moved since last I wrote you. I would remember such a place-name as Sultan! It is a most unusual one.
I have never "milked" any tarantulas, and I cannot remember reading about how it is done. So I asked Dr. Gertsch if he knew anything about it. He says his method is very simple -- just hook the lip of a vial under the fangs of the spider and pinch the spider a little to make it "mad." The venom will run right down the glass. No anesthetic -- no electric shock -- no harm to the spider. I did once know a boy who extracted venom from a tarantula by means of electric shock. He gave me the spider after his project was finished, and it lived for several years -- dying eventually of old age. (It was a male.) The temper of that tarantula was very bad. I have never been sure it was natural rather than the result of the treatment it had received. The boy has now gone to Israel to live, so I cannot refer you to him for instructions. I don't think he anesthetized the spider either. I think the article in "Nature and Science" suggested it merely as a precaution against being bitten, not because the shock is painful to the spider. I don't think the shock is strong enough for that.
I have no idea how often a tarantula might be milked, but suppose it would depend a lot upon how well fed the animal was, since it would need raw materials from its food to manufacture the venom. The normal full supply of venom from one tarantula is not harmful to a grown human being. Dr. Gertsch has been bitten several times, and never suffered more than a small temporary discomfort. I don't think tarantula venom has any commercial use, and can't see why anyone would want it -- except maybe a chemist interested in trying to determine its structure.
Yes, I do think your spider will start to feed again pretty soon. Some of mine already have. If yours is not full grown yet, or if it is a full-grown female, it will probably molt in the spring. It will not feed for a short time before that.
If your tarantula is one of the burrowing species (not a tree-dweller from the tropics) it should be quite safe to handle, particularly in the daytime when it is sleepy. At night it would be much more alert and quick-moving. However, you can never be sure about the temper of a tarantula. Spiders that have been frequently handled for years without showing any resentment may bite without any detectable provocation.
Certainly you may use excerpts from my letters in a booklet about keeping a pet tarantula. I'll even be glad to read the finished manuscript and suggest improvements if necessary. I think you should learn to handle your tarantula before you try to tell other people how. It took me nearly 20 years to bring myself to touch a spider -- even a little one. I'm pretty good at it now, though, so there is hope for you too. I can't remember whether or not I have told you this already -- but there are two ways of picking up a tarantula. One works because the spider is not aware that it is being picked up, the other because the spider has no way of preventing it. The first method is to put your hand down in front of the spider and then tickle him gently from behind to make him walk onto it. If he walks up your arm, put the other hand where he must walk over it. Be careful not to let the spider get a foothold on anything rough -- cloth, for instance -- and then try to pull him off; you would probably pull off his legs before he would let go. The other method of handling is to grasp the spider between your thumb and forefinger by the sides of the carapace between the bases of the middle pairs of legs. Come down on the spider from above and pin him to the ground. He will probably crouch and sit still. When you are sure of your grip, pick up the spider quickly so that all 8 legs lose contact with the ground at the same time. This is something that never happens in nature, so the spider has no way of acting under such circumstances. The result is that it does not act at all. It just freezes. As soon as even one foot touches anything, the tarantula will begin to struggle, trying to right itself and establish a firm foothold again. You might try both these methods of handling while wearing tough leather gloves. It would be a good idea to tease the tarantula with a glove first, to find out if it is truly tarantula-proof. I admit I have not tried to handle a spider while wearing gloves, and would find the gloves a nuisance -- but if you are too apprehensive to be gentle and slow-moving without them, they would be useful. Nothing so alarms a spider as a sudden movement. I think I did warn you about the danger of dropping a tarantula. (It's fatal.)
Didn't I once offer to lend you my book, "The Tarantula" by Baerg, and then renege because I had lent it to someone else? It came back, and just when one of my more advanced pupils happened to have a new tarantula, so I lent it to him on the strict understanding that he would bring it back as soon as he had read it. That was months ago, and he hasn't brought it back yet. But I do know who he is, and will ask for the book if you would still like to read it. In fact, I think I'll ask for it anyhow, and have it handy if you do want it. I would, of course, expect you to return it after writing your pamphlet. The book is out of print, and I would have trouble replacing it.
Yours very truly,
March 29, 1966
I have received your manuscript, and have read it most carefully. It seems to me that you have done a good job with the information you have, and that you will have a nice little book when you have finished, but there are a good many errors. These I have corrected or explained in notes on the manuscript itself. If you now have Baerg's book, you will probalby find out more that you will wish to include, so a revision of the text will be necessary in any case.
You car a good writer. There is nother wrong with your organization and hardly any fault to be found with your sentence structure. The only trouble you had was lack of information, and that is no fault of yours.
I will be glad to write you an introduction, when the revision has been accomplished.
The manuscript is on its way back to you by first class mail. (Not by air.)
Thank you for telling me that you had received a copy of "The Tarantula" in time to stop me from sending you mine. I will not get it back till the Jr. Ent. Soc. meets this Saturday.
One difficulty that I had not space to explain on the manuscript is the confusion regarding the name "tarantula." It is the most complicated instance of the baffling consequences of the use of "common" names with which I am acquainted. To begin with, the original Tarantula, the one from Italy which gave its name to the dance "tarantella," is the Wolf Spider, Lycosa tarantula, a species of the family Lycosidae. This species is a very large hairy spider that digs a burrow. It is not, however, so large as the spiders we call tarantulas. The reason for its fame is that during the late middle ages there was a curious outbreak of mass hysteria in which people who claimed to have been bitten by this spider were seized with a dancing frenzy. The idea was that the bite would be fatal if the victim did not dance hard and long enough to sweat the poison out of his system. The dance, and the music to which it was performed, were called tarantellas after the spider. This whole episode was a poplar craze, not unlike "hula hoops" except that it involved a delusion -- that the spiders bite people intentionally and that their venom is lethal to people. Actually, the European tarantula is no more venomous than our big wolf spiders, and no more prone to bite. Nobody now knows the reason for this brief but intense outbreak of biting and dancing. One theory is that the dances, which were community affairs rather than individual performances, were actually pagan religious festivals disguised as medical procedures to deceive the Catholc clergy. All this concerns the wolf spider tarantula, not to be confused with what we know by the name tarantula.
The huge primitive spiders we call tarantulas belong to the family Theraphosidae of the Suborder Mygalomorpha of the Order Araneae -- Spiders. Europeans call them Mygales or Bird Spiders (because some big tree-dwelling species may capture baby birds in the nest). I suppose that they were called tarantulas by the first Europeans to see them in America because they are big, hairy, and burrowing like the wolf-spider tarantula. It is true that the world's largest spiders are Theraphosids, but there are also small Theraphosids, no larger than our smaller wolf spiders. They are found not only in the Americas, but in most of the tropical and subtropical parts of the world.
So far we have been using "tarantula" as a common name. It is also a scientfic name -- but not for a spider. Tarantula is the scientific name of a genus of whip-scorpions. To make things even worse, Mygale is the generic name of a mammal -- a water shrew!
Now, isn't that a pretty tale?
Are you by any chance related to Miss Gayle Lund of Warrington, Florida? With names so similar, you ought to be twins.
Yours very truly,
August 17, 1969
I'm glad that the personal information I gave you was satisfactory for your purpose. And yes, I do know what a job it is to put out even a small publication. You care to be congratulated on doing it as well as you do.
I have received an answer from Dr. Cooke about the tarantula film. He says he did make one, for a British T.V. company called Survival Anglia Ltd. This company has a Now York office. I called them, and talked to a very courteous young man named Mr. Simpkins. He says the film is a one hour special called "Come into my Parlor," hosted by Peter Ustinov. It is one of a series now being sold as a package to T.V. stations all over the country. It has never been reproduced in a form suitable for optical projection -- videotape only. Eventually they may make a film version for educational use -- but not yet. He can only suggest that your readers watch their local T.V. programs for its appearance.
The Trinidad seminar-field trip was great fun, although disappointing from a Tarantula viewpoint. Those big spiders are certainly much less abundant now than they were five years ago. Lew Sokol and Ann Moreton, who were with me, hunted them diligently, by day and night, Ann with the help of Julius Boos, a very knowledgeable native of the island with a long interest in Tarantulas, and I don't think they got more than a dozen altogether, nearly all small. Julius thinks the recent airplane spraying to eradicate yellow-fever mosquitoes has a lot to do with the decline in the population of spiders. I suspect Ann will be writing you about her adventures. I myself found only two Tarantulas, one Avicularia and one Tapenauchenius, both in silk tubes wrapped with green leaves, about eye-level above ground.
In the grounds of the Nature Centre, and therefore out-of-bounds for collectors, a big female Tapenauchenius has lived for four years (that I know of) in a burrow in the wall of a road cutting, about eighteen inches above the bottom of the drainage ditch. Somebody in our party captured a mature male, and wondered what would happen if he were introduced to our resident lady. One rainy night (virtually all nights were rainy) some fifteen people with flashlights and cameras went to find out. The male was urged out of a bottle at the door of the lady's boudoir, and seemed to know at once that something interesting was within. Very cautiously he entered. Almost at once, he shot out, much faster than he went in, and was recaptured in the bottle. Supposing that all the light and noise made by the observers might have interfered with normal reactions, we tried again next night, on tiptoe and with only one flashlight; results were exactly the same. The lady simply wasn't receptive.
With 35 years of tarantula keeping experience, you'd think I could tell the difference between a dead tarantula and one that is molting, but I can't -- not always. I knew that it was molting season, and when I found Blondie, my best school tarantula, flat on her back, legs widespread and as limp as a wet dishcloth, I was sure she had died of molting trouble, as old tarantulas often do. I picked her up gently, but could detect no slightest twitch of life. Having no jar large enough to contain her, I laid her back in her box to await preservation on the morrow. The next morning there she sat beside her empty "shell," soft and weak, but very much alive. That, as my grandmother would have said, will larn me! Never preserve a tarantula until it starts to smell.
I have received a letter from a Mr. C.H. Richards, 12 Bouverie Rd. Stoke Newington, London N16 OAJ, England. He says he got my name from your book. He is planning to visit this country expressly to collect tarantulas of as many kinds as possible, and asked me for locations where tarantulas may be found in abundance. Well! As you know, that is not an easy request to fill. My own experience as a collector is so limited that I know of only two places where I can count on finding the big spiders, and even those may no longer be inhabited. I do not suppose many people know where to find a great variety, but among your readers must be many who can locate one or two species with fair confidence. Perhaps they would be kind enough to write to Mr. Richards and tell him what they know. It would be a pity if he made so long a trip to no purpose. Of course I am giving him your address and warning him that he is planning a more difficult undertaking than he knows. (I am not sure whether he wants the spiders alive or dead -- but if he read your book he probably wants them alive.)
I have just received a phone call from a young man who says he is writing a book for keepers of pet tarantulas, which he hopes to make as different as possible from yours. He is looking for photgraphes and wants to come and see what the Museum has. I am sorry that I didn't get his name, but I will when he comes. Since he expressed great interest in my big centipedes, I gather that his book will include arthropods other than spiders. He says he is a member of ATS [the original American Tarantula Society I founded] and lives in New Jersey.
I think that is all the Tarantula news I have at present.
April 16, 1975
Dear Mr. Lund:
Thank you very much indeed for the book and all the perquisites of membership in the American Tarantula Society. I have already given out three applications for membership, and shall probably not have the others long. Tarantulas seem to be very popular pets hereabouts. The badge is very handsome. I have "posted" it in a conspicuous spot in my office, where visitors cannot fail to see it and be encouraged to ask about the Society.
You are right about the typewriter. It must have been 50 years old when I got it, and it is the only machine I know how to use. I hope it lasts as long as I do.
I too wish that pet tarantulas could be reared for the market in captivity, but I do not see much hope of it. The life cycle is too long and the fact that the beasts are cannibalistic and require individual care makes the rearing costly in time and space. And I do not think it will be practical to try to prevent the natives of tarantula countries from hunting them for the pet market, as long as there is a market. Country people of the tropics are so desperately poor that they cannot afford to forego any opportunity to make a more or less honest penny, and they dislike the big spiders so strongly that they would regard their extinction as a blessing (This is not everywhere true, I know. There are cultures in which tarantulas hold an honored place in the folklore. but not in Spanish America, whence come so many pet spiders. I may be unjust in holding the Catholic Church responsible for the indifference toward the wildlife that prevails there. If, as the church teaches, the natural world was created for the benefit of mankind, then using it is the natural thing to do.)
In view of the limited range and slow growth of the big spiders, pet-hunting may be a factor of great importance to their abundance, but I think that destruction of their habitat with spreading human use of the land is a much more significant one. There must be species in the tropical rain-forest that will be extinguished before they are ever discovered, and of course our own Southwestern tarantula habitats are rapidly being converted into parking lots.
Since you invite me to comment upon the contents of Tarantula Times, I proceed herewith to do so:
It is an interesting little publication. I did indeed particularly enjoy the profile of Dr. Baerg. I met him once, when he came to New York, and he autographed a copy of his book for me. To my regret, the book was stolen right under my eye by a visiting tarantula fancier, as two other copies have also been. Nowadays I am reduced to a Xerox copy. Congratulations upon getting permission to re-publish "The Tarantula" in Tarantula Times.
Leif Matthew is a handsome young man, and if he is as alert and vigorous as he looks, you and Lilith have your hands full! To rear any child is a full time job, to rear an exceptionally intelligent one is an awesome challenge. Good luck!
To what extent, I wonder, may the myth of the dangerously venomous and savage tarantula be attributed to the producers of television horror and adventure films? They have to have a villain, and the spider cannot sue for defamation of character. When this question is raised by children, as it is every time I speak before them, I counter by asking them, "If the spider is as dangerous as all that, how did they make the picture? Why didn't the tarantula kill the actors?" That idea, and the obvious docility of my classroom spider Blondie, usually suffice to dispel the initial terror that so many people seem to experience.
I have noted with interest the report of Miss Stella Tatro, who experienced a recurring rash after handling a tarantula. It seems to me that she has become allergic to the spider. Dr. Gertsch did. I am not sure just what form his reaction took, but I can remember his saying it itched. I have written to Miss Tatro about this.
Mrs. Donahue is looking for a tarantula-based science project for her son that will not injure the animal. In the same issue of T.T. Jay Lanum reports a tarantula that apparently learned to respond to a whistle. Surely we have here an excellent subject for investigation. Can a tarantula really learn to associate a sound and food? And if so, can it discriminate between pitches? And can it determine the direction from which the sound is coming? Is it possible to devise an experimental situation in which you can be sure that the vibrations reaching the animal are air-borne and not traveling in the substrate? I should expect the spider to respond to substrate vibrations, but not to air-borne ones, although there is no reason why its sensory hairs should not be displacement sensors, as are some of those that insects have.
I enclose one of the publications on this museum that may interest you. Perhaps there is an article for T.T. in it.
I also enclose some literature about a project in which I have been involved for several years, -- a two-week field trip and seminar in Trinidad devoted to the observation and study of insects and other terrestrial arthropods. Of course, we see tarantulas, and may bring some back as pets. There are the red-footed Avicularias, and big greenish Tapenauchenius with cinnamon toes, and a little brown one that lives in deposits of bat guano in a cave. On Tobago is a splendid colony of trap-door spiders, but they are subject to a fungus disease that almost wiped them out last year. To anybody who wants an experience of the tropics in congenial company and at small expense, this is ideal. Perhaps some of your readers might like to join us, if not this year, then next. (Although there is no official connection between the nature center and this museum, almost all the group leaders are in some degree associated with the museum.)
I guess I've told you everything of interest that I can remember, and if I don't get this off today, I may not do it for another two weeks, so goodbye for this time.
March 2, 1979
Dear Mr. Lund:
No, I am not dead, although you would be justified in so thinking. I'm just busy and lazy about letter writing. I do thank you most sincerely for sending me your little book, and am flattered that you have dedicated it to me. Several people had told me about that before I saw it. I would very much like to have another copy. I have given mine to someone whose need was urgent. It is a nice job, and fills a need. Tarantulas are popular pets hereabouts, and you know how hard it is to find Baerg's book -- the only one until yours that tells anything about tarantulas as animals. There used to be three copies of Baerg in the Museum, two mine and one belonging to the museum library. All have been stolen, presumably by tarantula fanciers unable to get it any other way. All I have now is a Xerox copy taken from a book borrowed from the public library. (That too has since been "liberated.") So I think your book must be selling well. I hope so.
Yes, please -- I should like to be a member of the American Tarantula Society. Since the professional arachnologists can do so little to supply us with information about tarantulas as living animals, we amateurs must try to help one another by exchanging observations.
I am concerned for the future of these big spiders. They seem to be suffering, like many other creatures, from diminution of habitat, at least in Trinidad, the only tropical country of which I have any personal experience, and in California, which is rapidly becoming a concrete desert. Can you imagine official reaction to anyone who tried to have a spider declared an endangered species? A butterfly -- perhaps; but a spider? Ugh! Good riddance!
I am proud to know that my encouragement was instrumental in sustaining your interest in tarantulas, and wish the American Tarantula Society a happy future in sustaining the interest of other young people whom I could never reach.
Yours very truly,
June 4, 1979
Dear Dale: (We must be on first-name terms by now.)
Thank you for the handsome bumper sticker. It will certainly cause a sensation in my staid New England town!
American Museum Novitiates No. 2498 can be ordered from the museum librarian. The price is $1.60, postage included.
You certainly did give my entomology seminar a splendid spread. Thank you very much. I too hope that we may meet there next year.
The tarantula film shown on T.V. in Detroit sounds to me like something done by Oxford Scientific Films. If it is, my fellow seminar leader Ray Mendez helped to make it and I ought to be able to get a copy, one way or another. I called Ray at once, upon reading T.T., but have not yet succeeded in finding him at home. I'll keep trying.
Vol. 1, No. 8 seems to be pretty heavily loaded with my remarks. I do hope nobody supposes I am an authority on tarantulas. I'm just another amateur enthusiast. Already I have received a letter from somebody who expects me to know all about the scientific literature of tarantula taxonomy. I wish that I did. For all I have been able to find out in some thirty years of association with these big spiders, the literature is scattered, obsolete and largely inaccessible to amateurs. It is easier to identify a member of almost any other family of spiders than to name a tarantula with confidence.
With reference to premature death of tarantulas in captivity: I suspect that the one reported by Scott Brannock was the victim of a parasite, perhaps of something as large as a fly. There is a horrid little Phorid, a fly about as big as a Fruit Fly but with a characteristic way of flying in short "hops," that has killed several tarantulas as well as scorpions and giant cockroaches soon after their arrival in my laboratory. I am not sure whether they came with the animals or managed to infect them after I got them. My place is never wholly free of the pests. They are supposed to be scavengers. They are extraordinarily adept at getting into even tightly closed cages, and can pass through window screen with no difficulty. Apparently the adult flies deposit minute eggs on the arachnids. These hatch into white maggots that become internal parasites. When a deceased victim is opened, it is found to be packed full of maggots. I wonder if some sort of polyembryony is involved. Eggs enough to account for such a mass of insects ought to have made the victim look as though rolled in flour.
I have seen a good many tarantulas with tumors -- assymetrical swellings on the abdomen. I have suspected these to indicate a parasite within, but no insect has issued from the spiders that have died. Dr. Baerg's book mentions a parasitic fly of considerably greater size than that of Phorids. He calls it an Apiocerid. The adults of this family are called "Flower-loving Flies," and very little seems to be known about the larval habits.
The very big spider seen by Richard Seng must have been a fugitive from a pet-fancier's collection. There are no tarantulas east of the Mississippi. I have often wondered why there are none in Florida, as they do thrive in the islands of the Caribbean. I am, of course, excepting the Purse-web spider, which is a Mygalomorph, an "atypical tarantula," and which I have seen occasionally as far north as Long Island. Unhappily, it is not much bigger than a Black Widow.
We have on Long Island a bit of tarantula folklore that surfaces about once in ten years and is taken up by the newspapers as true, causing a flurry for a week or thereabouts. The last time it happened, I wrote to the author of the article, a "humorist" writing for "New York" magazine, and dealt with him rather severely for slandering a group of beneficial animals and frightening a number of innocent readers, who took his story for fact. The humorist never answered me. The readers, droves of them, telephoned the Museum to verify the story before moving away from Long Island. In brief, the tale is this: Somebody, usually a woman, sleeping with a window open, awakens in the night to find something heavy and furry sitting on her chest. She screams, and the thing dashes out of the window, but not before it is seen to be a gigantic tarantula. "As big as a football" is the smallest size I recall. In the morning the terrified victim telephones this museum and is assured that yes, there is indeed just such a giant spider, and yes, her home town is the only place where it is known to occur. When people talk to me about it, I always horrify them by saying that I wish the story were true. If it were, I'd be there with a pack of hunting dogs and a pack of tarantula fanciers to capture the beast. And think of the price such a spider would command in the pet market! If there had ever been any such creature, it would have been hunted to extinction long ago!
I wish I could attend your Potluck meeting. I see that spiders are welcome, and hope they are to be guests, not the main dish. We had, for many years (and probably still do, somewhere) a rather dilapidated dried tarantula given to the Museum by the then king of Siam as an example of those eaten in his country. It was said that they should be roasted to burn off the hairs before eating. Apparently all peoples of tarantula countries eat the big spiders if no more concentrated protein is available. I enclose a few pages from the book "Butterlies in my Stomach" by Ronald Taylor (Woodbridge Press Publishing Co. Santa Barbara Calif. 1975) in which is mention of several instances of tarantula eating.
In re: signs of impending ecdysis. I don't know where I got this: probably from Baerg's book. If there is a bald spot on the spider's abdomen due to hair-throwing, the spot may serve as an indicator. Normally it is pinkish gray. When it turns black the spider is getting ready to molt. I suppose, but do not know, that the old outer skin has been loosened and the new one is developing under it. Unfortunately, I can't remember how long after the spot turns black the molting may be expected. It is not immediate, more on the order of several weeks. Maybe some of your readers have kept a record of this.
I have recently seen a belt buckle of cast pewter that so much resembles a tarantula that I suspect a real spider to have served as the model for the mold. It is attached to a belt with spiders tooled on it that was made by a more-or-less local craftsman, but the buckle was, I believe, made in Texas. I am trying to find out the addresses of both foundry and leathercrafter. Maybe your readers would be interested. (The wearer of the belt I saw knows where he got it, but not the name of the seller.)
I wish I had not given to Ann Moreton my only copy of Vince Roth's wedding invitation. It was embellished with a picture of a pair of tarantulas cautiously approaching one another. Unique! Vince is at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Arizona. Of course, he is an arachnologist. I don't know about the bride.
Before I forget it, let me tell you the story of my classroom tarantula Blondie and that very prestigious club -- the West Side Association of Commerce. This group is composed of the heads of businesses located, as is this museum, on the west side of New York City. Once a year it holds a huge and very posh dinner party for the purpose of presenting an award for community service to some organization in the area and some individual representing that organization. Last year, the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts was recognized. This year, it was the Museum, in its roll of "a great and gifted teacher." And, since Margaret Mead had recently died, I was the most charismatic teacher the Museum had, so I was selected to receive the citation. I was expected to make a speech of acceptance, right after a heavy dinner. It had to be brief and light. So I polished up a nice little brass betel-nut box -- the sort of thing that ladies sometimes use as evening purses, and took Blondie to the party in it. Nobody had the least suspicion. When the time came, I got up in my long gown and earrings the size of garbage can covers (my boss's description) and explained that I was not a solitary teacher, but the leader of a team of invertebrate assistants. Since I could not have earned the award without the help of my arthropod team, I thought it right that the senior member of the team should accept the citation for all. Then I opened my innocent little box and put Blondie on the palm of my hand. After an incredulous pause, we got a standing ovation!
I can't think of anything else that might be of interest to you, so goodbye for this time.
June 15, 1979
Thank you for the nice long letter. I am glad if I have been able to contribute anything to T.T. Of course, I know when writing to you that I am in danger of publication, and if ever I tell you anything that is not to be circulated, I will warn you.
Raymond says he thinks that the tarantula film you want probably is the one Dr. Cooke made, and I have accordingly written to Dr. Cooke in quest of it. There has not been time for an answer, particularly as there is no telling where Dr. Cooke may have gone to take pictures -- Australia, maybe, -- or when he will pick up his mail in England. (Dr. Cooke used to be here. He is my contact at Oxford Films.)
I'm pretty sure I can track down Vinegaroon Forge, too -- through the craftsman who makes the belts.
The member who wrote me about literature is not Rick West, although I have rather been expecting him to do so. It is Bart Bruno, of Stratford, Conn. He has a child's handwriting, but does not sound like a child -- just an enthusiastic amateur, like the rest of us. I have the liveliest respect for amateurs. It is, after all, no more than a few generations since all scientists were amateurs. the professional arachnologist is a new phenomenon. The amateur, working for the love of his subject and the pleasure of discovery can progress in any direction, without the need to satisfy any funding organization, and take as long as he needs to find his answers. We have many amateur entomologists among the Museum Associates, and their work is every bit as good as that of any professional. They just don't get paid for it.
I should be happy to appear in a T.T. profile -- although I do not, as a rule, enjoy public appearances at which I am not actually present. I am usually so grotesquely over-rated as to be made ridiculous; but you know all about that. So, here is a little biographic material.
Born June 7, 1914, Schenectady, N.Y., first child and only daughter of George Francis Gray, an electrical engineer whose family has been American since the Revolution and Carlena Gerlach Gray, whose parents were born in Germany and ran a farm. (They met as children in Ohio, when his father took him to her father's farm to buy a little red pig.) I have one brother, five years my junior. He lives in California, has four grown children and detests tarantulas.
I was a happy child, but must have been a difficult one: intellectually precocious, socially retarded, scornful of my peers but pathologically shy -- comfortable only with adults and animals. Since father's profession dictated that the family move often, my schooling was fragmentary and largely private. In public schools I was convulsed with terror of classmates who could not understand my interests and made me the butt of ridicule, sometimes even of physical abuse. A resident grandmother who read aloud to me anything that was of interest to her gave me a taste for books, but it is said that I did not read myself until I was twelve. Then a perceptive teacher sent my mother a note: "Stop reading to Alice. She's illiterate." My horrified parent put an instant end to Grandmother's entertainment. The first thing I read to myself was Sherlock Holmes.
Throughout my childhood, I had a procession of pets, vertebrate and invertebrate. Mother tolerated anything, so long as I took care of it myself. She was a gardener, and always said she couldn't lose: if insects ate up the garden, at least Alice would enjoy the insects. The only spider I recall was a small amber-colored one that had a web in the kitchen window. A guest of my mother's, eager to do her a kindness, killed my spider. I lay down on the kitchen floor and threw a first-class screaming and kicking tantrum. The poor woman never understood to the day of her death, only about ten years ago, what she had done to offend me.
I was exposed to all the usual cultural subjects -- music, dancing, art -- but art was the only one that took. My favorite toys were tools. I was taught how to use them as soon as I could hold them, and never had a knife that wasn't sharp. Mother taught me to cook, sew and garden. Father taught me to mend electrical appliances, locks and plumbing. Nobody could teach me manuscript, mathematics or grammar -- not in any of the several languages I encountered during my schooling. I was and am a linguistic and mathematical moron, competent only in my native tongue and barely able to balance a checkbook.
The small preparatory school I attended as a teen-ager expected me to go to Vassar and become a Latin scholar. They were horrified when I chose to go to Cornell and study entomology. But I was acting on the best advice available to me. My parents, who had never tried to force me into a conventional mold, and who knew my failings as well as my strengths, went into conference with me about what I would really like to do with my life. I was almost certain to remain a spinster: I took after Father, whose female relatives were very largely single. I was too shy for any competitive occupation. I could make anything out of anything, but craftwork afforded a precarious livelihood. There remained my love of animals. How could I make a living out of that? There was always work for an entomologist, because insects are of great economic importance. I could bear to kill and dissect an insect, although I didn't like to, and still don't. Where could a timid female entomologist find work? (This was 1933, or thereabouts, and female scientists were not in demand.) Why not the American Museum? I had known and loved the museum all my life. It was as sheltered an environment as any outside a mental hospital. It could use my educated hands as well as any mind I might have. The perfect answer!
So, I wrote to Dr. Frank Lutz, then head of the insect department at the museum, and asked him where I should go and what I should study if I hoped someday to work for him. Dr. Lutz was kind enough to answer me seriously and in detail. It was by his advice that I went to Cornell and studied Entomology and other aspects of natural history (Ecology, we call it nowadays), writing and scientific illustration.
I well remember registration day. The graduate student in charge of registration for the entomology department was unwilling to risk admitting a female, and sent somebody to wake up the professor to sign the papers. I remember, too, the instructor who, when I said I hoped to work at the American Museum of Natural History, exclaimed, "What could you do there?" His was the course, taxonomy, that I elected to flunk when I was in danger of being graduated in February -- a thing that I wished to avoid but which my high average and many credits dictated. Confident that I was a bad enough taxonomist to flunk without effort if I simply refrained from study, I wrote across the top of my paper, "Ave, Caesar! Moritura te saluto!" the Roman greeting of gladiators to the emperor at the beginning of the "games" in the coliseum, but in the feminine singular -- "I who am about to die salute thee." In due course I got my paper back. "95% Sic semper tyrannis." (I hope that is correct.) "So be it ever with tyrants." How could I have known he was a Latin scholar? If he thought he had found another in me, he was dreadfully mistaken! I don't remember how I managed it, but I did escape February graduation by a quarter of a point.
A little before graduation I wrote again to Dr. Lutz, saying, in effect, "Now I have done everything you told me to do. When do I got to work?" He answered that there was no opening, and I took a job teaching handcrafts to the Girl Scouts. I was in camp that summer when somebody left the Museum, and Dr. Lutz offered me the post -- that of a technician. He even kept it open until the end of the camping season. He said he had been a camp director himself and knew what it was like to lose his staff in the middle of the summer! On the first of October, 1937, I entered the service of the American Museum of Natural History, and here I shall remain until they carry me out or antiquity renders me incapable.
On my first morning, Dr. Lutz introduced me to all the scientists so that they could reassure themselves that I was big and strong enough. (They had wanted a man.) My first task was dusting glass-topped drawers of moths stored in an attic and untouched for years. The amount of soap I consumed every night was phenomenal! When I passed that test, I was set to mounting insects. That was easy, but dull, and I was glad to have the routine broken by stints of net-making and the preparation of insect-killing jars. (My predecessor had nearly killed himself doing that, so I was exceedingly careful, and in consequence was saddled with the annual crop of killing jars long after I had graduated from technical to educational work.) A chore I enjoyed was caring for the live insects and spiders then exhibited in the Insect Hall. That is where I met my first Tarantula. The Insect Hall is no more -- demolished to make a storage place for banqueting equipment -- but I still keep an assortment of livestock under the pretence of using it in teaching. One thing I was never asked to do was typewrite. In my original letter of application I said I couldn't type and wouldn't learn. Happily, Dr. Lutz took this to be an index of high intelligence. He couldn't type and wouldn't learn either, and the one occasion on which desperation drove him to enlist me for the typewriter convinced him that I was hopeless. I have always had to do my own typing, and am now pretty quick, but only on a typewriter so old that the Smithsonian is likely to claim it as an historical exhibit. I hope it lasts as long as I do.
From insect mounting, I progressed to the drawing of insects for scientific publications, and thence to making models of insects for exhibition. Having made the enlarged models, I built the settings, enlarged to the same scale. In those days a scientific department constructed its own exhibitions. (Nowadays we have an exhibition department, and we only tell them what to do. It was more fun the old way.) And having made the exhibits, I wrote the label for them. That was the first educational writing I ever did. Without anybody taking notice, the exhibition hall became my responsibility, and then, gradually, public letters of inquiry about insects were handed over to me. Education is one of the three functions of a museum. (The others are curatorial -- getting while the getting is good and keeping safe till somebody wants the things -- and research.) But scientists usually regard time spent in teaching as wasted. The museum entomologists were only too happy to have somebody take it off their hands.
Dr. Lutz died before my metamorphosis into an educator was complete, but he set the course. None of his many successors has seen fit to alter it. When Cornell had tried to make me a teacher, I resisted the idea. Now I perceived the value of some formal training in the line, and began to take classes at night and on weekends, at Teachers' College, Columbia University. This is a graduate school, and all my classmates were teachers, but the University was broadminded enough to view my museum work as education and in the fullness of time awarded me an M.A. The one vivid memory I have of this interlude is of the course in "Fundamentals of Education," required of all students. Six professors lectured us all -- perhaps two thousand -- for two hours a session, and then we broke up into groups of fifteen to discuss what had been said. At the end, we had learned three things. Several years later, when I was helping to teach a field course under one of the six professors, I asked him if my impression of that course was correct. He said it was. The three things? 1. People are different. 2. That's a good thing. 3. There is more than one way to be right. I admit that these are things every teacher ought to know, but I could not imagine that there was any practicing teacher who did not already know them. I was wrong there. The group of teachers taught during that field course really did believe that there is only one way to be right and that all people ought to be the same! That is a lesson I shall never forget!
The museum took note of my academic achievement by promoting me to the rank of Scientific Assistant, the title I still hold. ("Curators" are researchers, and the curating is usually done by scientific assistants. The museum has no title for educators in a scientific department, so they did the best they could with what they had.)
I suppose it was at about this time that I wrote the only book about insects that I have thus far attempted -- a little book for children. It was commissioned by the publisher as part of a series, and appeared under the title of "The Adventure Book of Insects." It was eventually sold to the Golden Press, and only a few years ago I saw a paperback edition called "The Golden Question and Answer Book of Insects." I still receive occasional letters from people who have read it.
During the next few years I wrote a series of seven leaflets about making and using insect collecting equipment and mounting and preserving the catch. I illustrated them myself. They are still in print, after more than 20 years, although some of the materials advocated can now be replaced with things that had not then been invented. We distribute these leaflets free, as a means of avoiding the writing of long letters about collection techniques.
In those days, the Museum published a magazine for children ["Junior Natural History"] and I was a frequent contributor. On the side, I assumed the direction of the Junior Division of the New York Entomological Society, a group of teen-agers interested chiefly in field entomology. Once a year I took them on a two week field trip to a place as far afield as we could afford, chiefly to the Museum's research stations in Arizona and Florida. Membership was limited, and for many years we had a waiting list. Either the fashion in science among students has changed, or I have lost my touch. This group petered out and last year had to be discontinued for want of members.
Dr. Willis Gertsch came to the Museum at about the same time I did. As you certainly know, he was particularly interested in tarantulas. He always had a few live ones, and I often saw him handle them, but had no ambition to emulate him. When he used one in any public demonstration, he tied a cord around it, between the second and third pair of legs, partly to reassure the audience and partly to make sure that the spider would not suffer a fatal fall. It took two people to do the job, one to hold the spider and one to tie the knot. I was occasionally the knot-tier. I became handler in an emergency. A motion picture crew was scheduled to come to the Museum to photograph a tarantula, and Dr. Gertsch was ill and couldn't be present. I was elected to fill the gap. In theory, I knew how to do it. I'm afraid I grasped the unfortunate arachnid far more firmly than was necessary, but both of us survived. I have been handling tarantulas ever since, but it was more than a decade before I could bring myself to handle a scorpion, and I still have no confidence in centipedes. Of course, handleablility is a species characteristic. There are nervous and aggressive species that I do not care to alarm.
As information officer of the Department of Entomology, I needed to know a great deal more about insects than I did know. Further schooling was indicated. The Museum granted me leave of absence, and I went to the University of California at Berkeley in pursuit of a doctorate. It took me two years to catch up on the academic requirements and I had just been advanced to candidacy and begun my research when the Museum sent for me. The city had appropriated money for a new insect hall, and that was my line of work. Dutifully, I came home, but the money did not materialize. After two years, I went back to California. My research project, assigned to me because I was not appalled by the small size of the animals concerned, and alone among the graduate students was not hoping for a job in the government or industry, was the bionomica of Protura. These are the most insignificant creatures living. Most entomologists have never seen one. A big one is about a millimeter long. They are colorless or yellow, clear as glass, without eyes, without antennae, many without a respiratory system, and they live in the soil. Nobody knows much about them, not even what they eat, so they were ripe for investigation. Since they are recognized chiefly by the arrangement of hairs on the front feet, good eyes and some skill with the microscope are requisite. I got my material by taking soil samples every two weeks. Every two weeks I dug up the roots of poison oak. I am so allergic to poison oak that the university allergists were afraid to try to hyposensitize me, so I had a new attack every two weeks for a year. I lived through that, and had just settled down to trying to make sense of all my data and specimens (there turned out to be eight species where one had been anticipated) when the exhibition hall money really did come through. I never got that PhD. My ten thousand protura are now in Japan, being studies by a taxonomist there. Maybe someday he will publish the paper I did not write.
At that time, the Museum had only one very large hall available for new exhibits, and the proposal was to divide it between two departments, Entomology and Living Invertebrates. (Insect are, of course, living invertebrates, but the distinction was really between primarily terrestrial and primarily marine organisms, a matter of convenience for the scientists.) Each department made an outline of the material it thought should be included, and when the outlines were compared they overlapped so much that one cooperative undertaking appeared to be indicated. The department of Animal Behavior joined the party. The present Hall of the Biology of Invertebrates is the result. Each of the participating departments was given particular alcoves to fill. The ones I worked on were classification and nomenclature (how scientific names work), the mechanics of evolution, insects and the environment, and insects and man. The whole hall is essentially a textbook of general biology illustrated with invertebrate example. We still need an insect hall, a "fun" hall, full of the astonishment and wonder that insects inspire; but I shall not live to see it. It is easy to get money for a hall about people, but insects? Ugh!
Nowadays I spend most of my time answering questions put to me in person, over the telephone or by letter. If there is any radio or T.V. work or any exhibition work, I do those, but there isn't much. During the academic year I spend one day a week in an elementary school, showing my arthropod pets to the children and talking about them. If it does no more than spare the children the dread of "bugs" that plagues so many people all their lives, it will have been worth the time. I am very popular -- chiefly because I am cheap. The museum pays my salary (charges it up to public relations, I suspect) and the school pays the cost of my transportation and gives me lunch. When I retire (if I ever do), I'm going to charge a hundred dollars a day. Then we shall see how good I am!
Has it occurred to you that this doesn't sound much like the timid girl who chose the museum as a sheltered workshop? If anybody tells you that the basic personality congeals in infancy and cannot be changed, send him around to me. My metamorphosis has been complete. I suppose the change began when, at the age of forty or thereabouts, I made an epochal discovery: People were not really scrutinizing me to find something to criticize. They just wanted to know what I was thinking about them! If I could convey that on the whole I liked what I was seeing, they would be happy and like me in return. Nowadays I love people, all ages, colors and degrees of attainment, and take it for granted that they love me. As far as I know, they do. (The exceptions I prefer not to know about.)
My profession apart, I have had a succession of hobbies. For several years I was a student of the history of costume and made dolls dressed in the fashions of other times and places, as meticulously researched as circumstances allowed. For a time I made pottery, literally from the ground up. I hold the "Thanks Badge" of the Girl Scouts for having spent many successive summer vacations teaching handcrafts, without charge, in the local scout camp. During that time I was "Skipper" of a troop of Girl Scout Mariners. For the past fifteen years I have devoted most of my leisure to origami -- "Japanese" paper-folding, in which I am accounted expert, though not a "master." I have written a book about origami -- "The Magic of Origami" -- but it was printed in Japan without proofreading, and contains so many typographical errors that I don't boast about it. The origami-decorated Christmas tree at the American Museum of Natural History has become a holiday tradition. (It is annually prepared under my direction by volunteer folders, most of them taught by me.) For about 13 years I have been editor, and often author and illustrator, of "The Origamian," a little periodical devoted to paper-folding. A really good beginners' book of origami is one of the projects I am saving for the time when I can no longer travel a hundred miles a day to work (50 miles each way).
I still live in Norwalk, Conn., the town my father selected as a good place for a factory while I was in Cornell. Since my return from the University of California, I have lived alone, save for a household of cats (four at present). I am allergic to cats, but even my allergist understands that something has to be glad to see me come home, and I cannot love a goldfish. I am now 65. (Only the recent outlawing of mandatory retirement before 70 saved me from a retirement that I hope would have been premature.) I have been overweight all my adult life, and now I am paying for it. Asthma and arthritis have slowed me down. If, at my age, I can have a goal, it is to go on giving -- information, encouragement and what help I can -- as long as possible, and never to be a burden to anyone. My life has been unspectacular, but singularly happy, and in my good fortune I feel an obligation to share that happiness.
Goodness! When you asked for biographical notes you can't have expected anything like this. I didn't start out to write it. Well, use as much or as little as you will.
As for pictures, I have no good one of myself and tarantula, although I have a good one of the spider alone -- and wearing a Gertsch harness, at that. I also have two fine ones of my hand with tarantula in it, and two bad but attractive ones of me. The only one that is of reproduction quality shows me with an origami butterfly, but it looks more like Mary Martin than like me. Perhaps that is as well. I doubt that anyone who knows me will see it, in any case. No need to return.
I have found out the source of the spider-tooled belts with tarantula buckle.
Craft Collage (that's right, not college)
1232 Storrs Rd.
Storrs, Conn. 06268
I paid $20 for my belt, but that may not be the full price. I guess I'll have to phone Storrs and ask. (It is not so far from Norwalk.) I have purchased several of the belts as gifts, but through a middleman. The middleman says he thinks the seller told him that the Vinegaroon Foundry is in Texas. But that's not much help; Texas is a big place.
I hope I haven't told you all my favorite stories. I want something left over for future issues of T.T.
P.S. Looking over you list of things you wanted to know, I find I have forgotten to list my pet likes and dislikes. Well -- here goes:
Things that enrage, disgust or simply bore me:
Trade unions (damn their insolence!).
T.V. (It has given us a generation of brainless nincompoops who can't even entertain themselves on a rainy afternoon. Our worst enemy could have done us no greater disservice.)
Modern "art" and modern popular "music." Pure raw emotion requiring neither skill in the execution nor comprehension in the appreciation. No doubt therapeutic to the performers, but why afflict other people with their catharsis?
Sport -- the organized professional kind. I can see doing physical and even competitive things for pleasure, but to devote time and money to watching other people do them??
Selfishness -- the heedless casual sort that tears up wilderness with dune buggies and snowmobiles, clutters cities and parks with cans, bottles and wastepaper, and defaces public places with assertions of identity.
Seafood. No reason. I just abominate it.
Housework. I am the world's worst and most reluctant housekeeper.
Things that delight, gratify and entertain me:
That magic instant when ideas previously unrelated click together to form a new concept -- "The shock of recognition" I think the psychologists call it. Best of all is seeing this happen to someone else through something I have said or done.
Verbal virtuosity -- great precision and grace in the exercise of our one distinctively human accomplishment. We are blessed with the world's most versatile and flexible language; how poorly we use it!
Sensation. Not scandal -- the employment of the senses. The tumult of a thunder storm, walking barefooted at the edge of the sea, a night vibrant with the voices of frogs and insects, the feel of a purring cat, a happy juxtaposition of colors, the scent of baking bread, the flavors of fruits and many other things. Etc. Etc. ad Inf. Who needs to carry a blaring radio?
Books. The accumulated wit and wisdom of humanity, in absolutely no danger of becoming exhausted.
Making things. Anything, from a mud pie to an evening gown, or even an automobile, should opportunity offer.
Looking over this list, I come regretfully to the conclusion that I must be "square." Square? I'm cubic! It makes me glad to be 65. My world is plainly dying, and I don't think I much care for the one that is coming on.
I have just acquired some fine tarantulas from Santo Domingo. A man I had never met, but with whom I had conversed over the telephone about the spiders, brought them to me. Of a baker's dozen, six were dead on arrival, apparently the victim of rough handling in containers too large to allow them to brace themselves against jolts. I have preserved the remains in alcohol, in hope of eventual identification. One of these unfortunate victims was the most spectacularly colored tarantula I have seen. The upper surface of the chelicerae and femora, the patellae and the carapace, all were brilliantly metallic, varying from deep bronze to royal purple. The rest of the body was clothed with long, stiff purple-brown and black hairs. I had heard of purple tarantulas, but supposed the description referred to the brick-lilac iridescence of some Haitian and Yucatec (is that the word?) species. I had not anticipated anything like this. Unfortunately, only a ghost of the splendor survives in the preserved specimen. This spider was an adult male, with body two inches long from the front of the carapace to the back of the abdomen, not including the chelicerae or spinnerets. The reach of the legs, in natural position, was five inches, front to back. The carapace was circular, and the hooks under the front tibiae bifid -- the first example of double hooks that I have noted. None of the living specimens look much like it but some of them appear to be immature males, so maybe I'll be lucky enough to rear a duplicate.
According to the donor, these are tree tarantulas, and jump vigorously. They were hungry when I got them and eagerly accepted cockroaches. The remains they left were not rolled into a pellet like a dry raisin, as made by other tarantulas I have had, but fragmented, like coarsely ground black pepper.
I suspect none of this is new to you or your readers, but it is to me. Truly, there is no end to the things to be learned about our favorite spiders.
September 6, 1979
"Rotunda," the museum's little newsletter for its members, recently did an article about me which was illustrated by a picture of me and spider much better than any I had to send you. I begged the photograph from the editor and enclose it herewith. (It must have been taken at the same time as the origami butterfly one that I think I did send you.) If it is not too late, you may wish to use this one instead of any of those previously submitted.
You are right about the young man from New Jersey -- it is indeed John G. Browning. He came with a photographer -- his brother, I think -- and took pictures of all the tarantulas I had. He was quite annoyed with me for not being able to tell him the provenience and scientific name of each animal. I do not think you have much to fear from him as competition. He is, for a guess, about fifteen years old, and a bright kid. The trouble is, he knows it. He is "up" on what is available in the literature (including T.T.) and supposes that this makes him an expert. I rather gather that his book is to consist largely of anecdotal material, and I am not at all confident that he can distinguish between that and scientifically demonstrable fact. A book of tarantula anecdotes might be great fun and perfectly acceptable, as long as it does not purport to be a scientific monograph. If one so young can write well, I shall be astonished -- his generation is virtually illiterate -- but I cannot condemn his effort unread. I hope I have persuaded him to let me read the manuscript before he offers it for publication. Then I can at least catch the most conspicuous blunders.
A few days ago I received a phone call from another member of A.T.S., whose name I have, of course, forgotten. He said he had purchased two red-kneed tarantulas for his twin sons, and after a few months one tarantula died, yielding several large maggots. I urged him to keep the maggots alive, if possible, to see what sort of fly developed and to write to you about the event. He says if he does succeed in rearing the flies, he will let me know. I will have them identified by an expert in the family of flies concerned, if I can find one.
Tommy Slattery telephoned me to say he is planning to leave the New York area (it was not quite clear why or where he plans to go) and asked if I could find a purchaser for his tarantulas and scorpions. Since his price is below wholesale, I am taking the lot -- not more than six animals, I gather -- and will place them at cost among people to whom the current retail price would be prohibitive. Tommy takes good care of his arachnids, so they will be vigorous handsome specimens. His association with a pet shop gave him opportunity to acquire the best the market offered.
The obliging traveler who brought me all those tarantulas from Santo Domingo telephoned to say he was making another trip there, and did I want more spiders? Since more than half of the last batch died in transit, apparently of being battered about in containers too large for them, I suggested that he let me supply the carrying cages. They are plastic boxes about five inches deep but only a little over two inches square, and originally contained paint. They were sent to me, full of tarantulas, by a correspondent in Brownsville, Texas. I sent them back empty and he sent them full again, several times. He was a school teacher, and his pupils kept him supplied with spiders. When he retired, the supply failed. I had the boxes at the time, and just kept them. Each has half a dozen ventilation holes 1/4" across.
The secret of a successful traveling cage for a tarantula seems to be to have it narrow enough for the spider to brace its legs securely against the sides, as it can do in a burrow. If the spider can be confined in the cage for a few days before the trip begins, it will make a silk lining that offers a firm foothold. A cardboard mailing tube is good, The roller from a package of paper towels will make several cages -- just cover the ends with cloth, firmly taped on. Such comparatively frail cages should be enclosed in a stiff box to insure against crushing. But of course, you know all this. The teacher comes out in me, even without provocation, I'm afraid.
Will you please send me some more membership application forms? I have given out all those you sent me.
I can't think of any other pertinent news, so goodbye for this time.
October 12, 1979
Thank you for returning the photographs. I do indeed have another use for them.
I applaud the demise of your T.V. set; but I did happen to see, at a friend's house, a most beautiful spider program that included a few shots of tarantulas. It was called "Life on a Silken Thread" and was one of a series called "Nova." It was made in Germany, and Ray Mendez, who helped make the Oxford Scientific Films tarantula picture, says this is better. I am glad not to have missed it.
I enclose a copy of the most recent issue of "The Origamian." I don't think it will mean much to you, as it is virtually incomprehensible to all but paper-folders. But if you really do want to subscribe, the price is $2.50 for four issues, whenever you get them. You can place the subscription with the Origami Center, the address of which is on the paper.
I am gratified that my profile has been well received, but astonished that everyone seems to have seen it but me. Are you concealing it from me for fear of destroying a beautiful friendship?
Thanks for the membership applications
December 10, 1979
Thank you for the second copy of "my" issue of T.T. The first arrived simultaneously with it, so your bulk mailing does work eventually. I certainly have no reason to be displeased with it, since you used my material exactly as I wrote it. Your additional paragraph, though flattering, is not offensive. Quite the contrary.
Thanks, also, for forwarding the letter sent to me in your care. It was from a delightful lady who read my biography in T.T. and thinks I ought to write a book about my career in the museum. Alas, I am wholly unfitted for that, as I cannot remember names or dates, and never know who did what, when. I may be a lively conversationalist, but am no historian!
I am trying to work up a "piece" on the word "tarantula" -- its history, forms and usage. It is a glorious mixup, since at least three groups of animals have borne the name, and all of them have other names which have been applied to other creatures as well. Just what scientific nomenclature is supposed to prevent. If I can get pictures of all the animals it should make a pretty little article for T.T., or maybe a talk for young Mr. Browning's convention.
Did I ever tell you Long Island's own Tarantula myth? It comes to the surface about once in ten years, and gets into the newspapers -- probably intended as folklore, but accepted by many readers as fact. We get a rash of phone calls from people wanting to verify it, before selling their homes and fleeing a territory so perilous as the one where they have been living, peacefully, in ignorance of their danger. In outline, the story goes like this: It is a hot summer night, and suburbia is sleeping with windows open. In the middle of the night someone awakens to find something heavy and furry sitting on his chest. The sleeper leaps up with a shout, and the creature scurries out at the window. As it crosses the sill its silhouette reveals that it is a gigantic spider -- at least as large as a football. The terrified householder slams down the window and phones the police. In the morning he calls this museum and is told that his particular Long Island village is indeed the only known home of a particularly large and venomous tarantula, and he is lucky to have escaped with his life. The last time this story erupted was when the magazine "New York" was new -- I forget the year. The author of the story was a well-known comedian, but he told the tale with no suggestion that it was not factual. After half a dozen people called me a liar when I assured them that no such spider exists, I wrote a very nasty letter to that author. I have not cared much for the magazine either, since that time. Frightening people and maligning an inoffensive group of animals isn't funny.
I can think of no news worth writing, so goodbye for this time.
Alice Gray died on April 27, 1994. I am so thankful for all her help and friendship and the correspondence we shared for fifteen years. She kept my interest in tarantulas alive, and directly and through others Alice inspired, helped and encouraged countless people throughout the world.
The story of the original American Tarantula Society is found here in the Butter Rum Cartoon, and every issue of its bimonthly newsletter, the Tarantula Times, is available online.
For the complete contents of the Butter Rum Cartoon, click here.