My mom was afraid of spiders. So much so that she would scream every time she saw one and beg for it to be killed. Before I cut her out of my life, one year while I was in college, a girl came running out of the shower to exclaim there was a huge spider in the stall. Knowing my role, I stepped in and squashed it beneath my foot. I texted my mom to tell her, thinking it might raise some sweetness, some tenderness for me in her.
Sometime in 2015, my relationship to spiders changed. My relationship with most living things changed. I stopped viewing spiders as something to fear and, instead, found them fascinating. I marveled at the orb weavers I saw out on my front porch or in front of my window at work. I started doing research on the different species and learning about those most commonly found in my region. I started making plans in 2018 to get my own tarantula and, in 2019, I got my first one.
Most of what we have learned about the animals we fear can be debunked. Even one of the most feared spiders in the world, the brown recluse, isn’t “deadly” the way we think it is. Most brown recluse bites can get treated with a quick doctor’s visit to confirm and rest at home. The necrotic reaction we’ve come to associate with them is rare, though not impossible.
Tarantulas, because they are like bigger versions of the house spiders, are often feared for their huge fangs and assumed deadly venom. What most tarantula experts will tell you is that the bite is comparable to a bee sting: If you’re allergic to bees, you might be in trouble, but everyone else can walk away with redness, itchiness, or numbness at the site of the bite.
I did all this research before getting my first tarantula, Della, who died seven months after I got him. My second tarantula, Delphine, was sold to me as a female just as Della was, then, after a molt, I found out Delphine was male too.
Delphine was of the species Aphonopelma Chalcodes, or Arizona Blonde. Native to the US, these tarantulas are considered some of the most docile of the species and are popular first tarantulas for many in the hobby. I named this tarantula Delphine Sade because, on the first glimpse of him, I saw a little rose color in his carapace, and when I see the color pink in nature I think of Sade’s “Kiss of Life.”
“Look at the sky, it’s the color of love.”
My first year with Delphine was blissful. I was always watching him: spinning webs, eating worms, cleaning his fangs. I took pictures and added them to his own private Instagram account so that my followers who were afraid didn’t have to see him. Delphine was as docile as they come and so beautiful. When he molted into his mature male self, I was disappointed, because I knew death wasn’t far off. But I still kept up my enthusiastic care of him, only feeding him worms fed with the best vegetable scraps and giving him bottled spring water.
It is not a stretch to say I loved Delphine, so when I had to euthanize him, it broke my heart. All I wanted was for him to have the best life, the best care. I was in the process of finding him a new home because I would be moving soon. He was weak at the end and didn’t put up a fight. There’s a lot online and on arachnoboards about the ethics of euthanizing a tarantula, best methods, whether you should just let them die naturally, etc. I went with what I thought was the most humane and preserved him after he had passed.
Tarantulas have brains, but not like the brains of other animals and humans. The tarantula brain is a central nervous system of ganglia whose role is to perceive and detect sensual stimulations from the environment. This allows them to detect movement around their body, on their webs at the opening of their hides in nature. A tarantula in the wild will live in the same hole as long as it can. By lining the outside with web, they can feel prey walking or flying past and grab the insect before it knows what happened. Not every tarantula is a heavy web maker though, so they rely on feeling the vibrations from the ground as their prey moves about.
Tarantulas lead a simple life: eat, clean, mate, repeat. Because of the simplicity of their brain structure, they do not create bonds with the humans that keep them. They do not love or show affection the way a dog will. Keeping a tarantula that I loved seems trivial when I tell you this fact, that my pet never once knew I existed. That I never held him for his own safety. You are probably wondering how love happens in an environment like this one.
I don’t remember my mom’s response when I texted her the story about killing the spider for a random girl in college, I wish I did. I wish she had said something that summed up our relationship cleanly, but she didn’t. I can tell you I loved my mom even when she called me worthless or stupid. I loved her when she hit me and made me feel frightened and small. bell hooks wrote that love and abuse cannot coexist, so I’ve learned in my adult life that there may have been care for me in my childhood home, but there was no love. My mom may have wanted the best for me, but she didn’t know how to love me.
How do you love something that does not love you back, that cannot?
Six months into my relationship with my ex, they told me the first time they told me they loved me they lied. I didn’t know what to say. I tried to turn the love I had for them off like a faucet but, even in that moment of hurt, there was still a steady leak.
They tell you not to handle your tarantulas because their abdomens are like balloons, and if they drop, they pop. This is certain death for a tarantula. They are pretty nimble and can fall on their feet in the wild, but improper handling by a human above a hard floor is a recipe for disaster. You can, of course, handle a tarantula safely. If you have to transfer them into new homes, you might have to handle them a little. They can be lightning-fast depending on their size and species, so it’s best to just not risk it.
So I watched Delphine in amazement as he took down worms or even beetles. I tried to feed him once a week and only prey smaller than him, things that were easy for me to maintain and easy for him to overpower. When he became a mature male, I watched him grow restless in search of a female, making sperm webs in the corner of his enclosure. When he died, I carefully put his body into a glass jar with some flowers and filled it up with alcohol to preserve him. I wanted him to rest surrounded by beauty.
When I first brought him home, he was small and underfed, which isn’t uncommon when you pick up a tarantula at a reptile expo. I fed him the next day and whispered words of encouragement when the worm tried to get away from him. I shared pictures of him enthusiastically until he started to slow down and age. I had Delphine for almost three years. During that time, I had grown attached to the weekly feedings, the daily progress reports, and updates on his behaviors. I loved being the weird woman with the tarantula, I loved educating people about them and the myths surrounding them.
I made Delphine a special playlist that was mostly for me. Songs that reminded me of him and his quirky behaviors, his daunting and delicate frame. The song “Delphine” by Kadhja Bonet came to mind, and I’m listening to it as I write this. The song sounds haunting but is patient and tender. It encapsulates everything I felt about keeping tarantulas. The song is about who we love and what we do when that love isn’t reciprocated or is lost.
The truth is, I have loved and cared for so many people that have not loved or cared for me. That made it easy to love Delphine, to be shown nothing but indifference and still fawn over his coloration and what I perceived to be his gentle nature. Before Delphine died, I was thinking of getting another pet, one that had a bit more of a warm reception, but I decided against it. I didn’t want to be that kind of person who reveled in a false sense of love and warmth. Delphine’s blankness and disregard of me were true, true to his nature, and true to what I’ve known. Animals like cats and dogs may look like they love you, but can they truly, is that love real?
After having two pets die on me, I’ve decided to not get another tarantula until I’m settled after my move. I also need some time to recover from Delphine, losing him the way I did. In the meantime, maybe I’ll learn something new about love, how I want to love and be loved, and what it looks like to realize love in my life. I have tattoos of spiders, so I’ll still be the weird tarantula woman. I’ll still hold all the knowledge I have of them and share it when I can.
To really love anything, I think, is to run the risk of it not loving you back. I’ve learned that over the years. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. When I’m met with love back, it feels immeasurable. When I’m not, I feel like I’ve only been made more compassionate, the way Delphine taught me to have compassion for all small things.