Rose Hair Alternatives
There are a plethora of tarantula species to satisfy any customer.
When I first turned from hobbyist to pet professional nearly 40 years ago, tarantulas as pets were new to me. Sure, I’d encountered them in the wild—I grew up on the cusp of the Everglades—but the notion of pet tarantulas was almost unheard of. However, my introduction to the Red-Leg Tarantula (Brachypelma smithi) changed all that. Here was a spider that was robust, docile, beautiful and inexpensive.
I fell in love. At that time, a large female in perfect shape sold for $25! They are gentle as a kitten—more so, really—have Halloween colors of black and orange, and they have a lifespan of up to five years for males and 15 for females.
Furthermore, they’re quite popular. In fact, I met my bride over her purchase of one of these little charmers. They were being imported at that point directly out of Mexico, but, in the mid-‘80s, with increasing pressure on wild populations, the supply dried up and their direct importation ceased.
However, the now-established desire for pet tarantulas did not cease. People wanted a pet spider that would have all the attributes of the Red Knee. A market had been established, but where was the spider to fill that niche? Chile. Chilean Rose Hairs (Grammastola rosea) fit the bill perfectly. For 20 years, they were the new go-to introductory pet tarantulas. They are predictably calm, with an iridescent thorax, a good size, and—again—a price that did not make people flinch. But alas, they too have become scarce in the pet trade. I have no evidence that this is a result of population depletion; other reasons might be habitat destruction, the whims of regulation or simply political shifts between countries. All of these things can affect our ability to access wild animals.
I tend to think of these changes as a double-edged sword. Sure, it makes our lives a little more difficult, but if it makes the species’ wild populations healthier to keep the pet industry out, I can’t argue with that. Unfortunately, just as often, the health of wild populations has little to do with retail pet selling and everything to do with pollution, habitat destruction and the vagaries of evolution. In fact, with some species, our industry has been instrumental in providing a last sanctuary and salvation.
In fact, both Red Knees and Rose Hairs are still commonly available in the pet trade—as babies. There are breeders throughout the U.S. breeding these and myriad other species for the pet industry. For many, the joy of taking a little speck—baby tarantulas are tiny—and raising it up is a pleasure, and this is often a good alternative for customers in the absence of wild-caught adults.
To that end, we keep a few tanks that serve as showcases for a few dozen miniature glass bottles that are populated with baby tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes and the like. This supports hobbyists and breeders, gives us an environmentally friendly alternative, and allows us to keep an impressive inventory of various species while taking next to nothing in retail shelf space.
Of course, there are some drawbacks. It is admittedly a bit difficult to sell something you can hardly see! To that end, we provide a notebook with photos and descriptions of the adults. That helps. But this also asks a lot of patience and vision out of people. So, for the “I want satisfaction now” kind of client, we are back to square one: where do we find a tarantula that is pretty, big, sweet and inexpensive? Fortunately, there are still a few choices left for us to promote.
One of my favorite spiders is, and frankly always has been, the Guyana Pink Toed Tarantula (Avicularia avicularia). They share in common with the Roses and Red Knees a sweet disposition. However, as they are arboreal, they differ from the others in that they are perfectly willing to jump into open air without warning or provocation. That takes a little getting used to, and as a result, they should not be handled over a bare concrete or hardwood floor, as they are susceptible to breakage.
Their tree-dwelling nature allows for a very different setup than the others. They want a tall cage, heavily planted with real or imitation plants. They build elaborate web nests, which eventually serve to hide them from view, but, should you decide to remove their webs, they will, without anger or recrimination, go about building a new one. They like it humid, with temperatures in the mid 70s to mid 80s.
The Pink-Toes are very lovely, with a velvety-black body and literally pink feet. Oddly, their babies have inverse coloration: pink bodies and legs with adorable black booties. As pretty as they are, the real magic is in the peculiar gait with which they walk. They act like nothing so much as dressage ponies.
The specimens I have seen over the last decade seem to be smaller than what I used to see; this is probably a shift in collection locale. Despite their smaller size, they are still a joy to keep. There are a lot of species in this genus, and they are quite popularly bred. Some of them are nothing short of spectacular in color, and I recommend them as babies worth stocking, even given a higher retail price.
One more thing about the Pink Toe: they are an anomaly in the tarantula world in that, if kept well-fed they will happily live communally. I have successfully kept as many as a dozen in a single enclosure for more that a year without incident.
For those who want a spider more akin in habitat and lifestyle to both the Rose and Red Knee, a viable choice is the Tucson Blond (Aphonopelma chalcodes). Like the others, this is a burrow-dwelling animal, preferring scrub terrain. They want what is pretty well known as standard tarantula habitat: temperatures in the high 70s to high 80s, a wet sponge or moss bunch in one corner, but otherwise dry, and a hiding space or place to burrow at one end.
As their name implies, they are very light colored spiders, sometimes accented by a darker abdomen and legs. I find them to be a bit nervous at first handling, but they quickly calm down and get used to the human interaction.
I feel certain that the eventuality is that these spiders too will become rare in the trade, at least as adults. It seems inevitable, at least until we can get a handle on how to manage our relationship with the wilderness in a way that protects and conserves these wonderful creatures while still managing to allow us to bring some of them into our lives. It is by imprinting a relationship with wild creatures on our own human breeding projects that we can ensure a next generation of humans that will have a personal connection to care for and nurture the wild world around us.
For me, that is why we are all in the pet business. PB
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.