A lot of teachers come into my shop looking for a classroom pet. They almost always go for a frog or water turtle, creatures whose popular image is friendly and benign. If they ask my advice, however, I work very hard to convince them that these are bad choices.
Firstly, neither animal is particularly friendly or benign. Water turtles, even relatively small ones, can deliver a wallop of a bite, and are infamous as vectors of salmonella. Also, they require far more elaborate setups than the novice might imagine. Frogs can be toxic, especially if fresh out of the wild, and few of them handle well. They are also largely nocturnal, making for a pretty unexciting classroom display.
Even if these points weren’t true, I see little educational value in firsthand experiences with animals few people fear and most people perceive as cute. I prefer when classrooms display animals that can really broaden a child’s perspective and give them a new curiosity for the wonders of nature. I am always happy to recommend arachnids. Spiders, and even some scorpions, can make wonderful additions to the classroom. They can also be a remarkable pet in the home.
Requiring very little cage space, minimal maintenance, and very low setup costs, spiders are the ultimate in budget-friendly, rewarding pets. While, in my experience, arachnophobia is waning as a popular fear, these little guys still command enough respect and fascination to draw a lot of interest. Retailers can turn that fascination into profits.
As with any group of disparate species, it is hard to generalize about arachnids’ care, but I’ll try. Most arachnids want small quarters (a five-gallon tank is more than adequate for almost all of them), a mild heat source, and a water source. Desert species, for instance, will nicely make use of a corner with some damp moss or a small, wet sponge.
They are all predators, but most do well on a simple diet of live crickets and other soft-bodied insects. I find most people who do poorly with arachnids do so by overfeeding them. Because the majority of activity one will see out of a spider is related to capturing and devouring their meals, it is tempting to feed them constantly. They seem to have a feeding response trigger that goes off at every opportunity. That’s because, in the wild, food is relatively uncommon. When fed more than a few times a week, they seem unable to handle the intake and soon perish.
The other peril that arachnid owners need to consider is their physical fragility. Spiders, especially tarantulas, and even scorpions, tend to literally break like an egg when dropped. Severe breaks can be fatal, but minor ones can often be remedied with quick-drying glues. I have saved many a spider with a speedily applied glue-job and a little patience. The repair will be completely healed and scarless after the spider’s next molt.
The Big Ones
Of course, the most popular arachnids are and have always been the tarantulas and their cousins the bird spiders. These are typically large, impressive creatures with beautiful coloring and markings. Among the most popular tarantulas are the rose hairs, pink toes, and red legs.
The rose hair is an exceptionally docile spider from Chile that is neither inclined to bite nor to “kick hairs,” a spider defense that involves kicking a plume of the irritating hair-like structures off their abdomens and into the air. The males have a particularly beautiful abdomen of pinkish purple with an outstanding sheen, but both sexes can be quite lovely. Rose hairs tend to be one of the least expensive of all the large spiders, and have consequently gone on to be the most common and popular pet tarantulas currently on the market. There are many similar species, some of which are not quite as pleasant, so take care to make sure the one you sell has the desired personality and is the ‘real’ rose hair.
Pink toes are also exceptionally even-tempered. They tend to be a smaller tarantula and are typically jet black with bright pink feet. Ironically, they hatch out with inverse colors, a tiny pink spider with big black booties. There is a myriad of related spiders in their genus, and some of them are amongst the most beautifully colored creatures on earth. I recommend, once you’ve established them as an item in your store, exploring their pricier but incredible cousins.
Pink toes exhibit many fascinating and heart-melting personality traits. Being arboreal by nature, they tend to build elaborate webs at the top of their cages. Their gait is nothing short of adorable: they march like little ponies. They do have a slight tendency to leap, so some caution is in order. They are also one of the few tarantulas that, if well fed, can live in colonies. As they are rain forest denizens, this allows for a display that is large and heavily planted, making for a truly lovely display spider.
Red-legs are part of a large constellation (others include orange-knees, flame-knees, red-rumps, and fire-legs) of beautifully colored, docile spiders centered in Mexico. They have been the classic pet spider for decades, but they can be pricey for beginnners. Captive-produced babies are common and easy to raise, however, making them an affordable option. They are docile, but when stressed they will kick hairs.
A personal favorite spider of mine is the delightful little jumping spider. Common in most U.S. gardens, these are often beautifully marked ground dwellers that your customers might be inclined to catch and keep as a pet. With their front-facing vision, they are wont to look at their keeper face to face, and I have had some that have come to recognize my face and associate it with food coming into the cage–remarkable cognitive skills for something the size of a fingernail.
Of course, many people are fascinated by the true giants of the spiders. The two that seem to predominate the pet field are the goliath bird spider and the king baboon spider. The king baboon is an african scrub spider with a gorgeous velvety terra cotta appearance and an aggressive disposition. Not for the faint-of-heart, these creatures can have a leg-span of nine inches.
The goliath bird eater is just as big or bigger, but is sometimes docile enough to free-handle, though I would counsel great caution in testing out that theory. To call this spider impressive is to undersell it; these are of a size to leave your customers breathless.
Tarantulas, especially the giants, will serve as a draw and make your store a destination. Even those who feel a bit repulsed will find it difficult to resist the lure of peeking into this very different webbed world.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.