Saving Spiders

Even eight-legged creatures need a hand sometimes

“A keeper walks into a room full of spiders….”
But this is no joke, it’s a daily occurrence at the San Diego Zoo’s Arachnid Rescue Center.

BY Wendy Perkins

Photography by Ken Bohn
Videography by Lee Rieber
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Inside the large, peaceful room, the air is a sultry 77 degrees Fahrenheit and eerily quiet, except for the small sounds made by the keeper changing out food trays and logging notes about the individual animals. One wall is a large glass window, which allows Zoo visitors to see inside—and their reactions vary. There are gasps, squeals, “EW!” and “Wow!” and a great deal of excited chatter. The new area allows guests to get a rare view into a special place, where some of the smaller multilegged creatures of the world are rescued.

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 Safe Haven

Tucked away in the Children’s Zoo, the Arachnid Rescue Center is devoted to the care and feeding of invertebrate animals rescued from wildlife trafficking. Most of the 65 residents are tarantulas, but there are a total of 19 species of arachnids represented. “Arachnids face the same threats as all other animals, and illegal smuggling is among them,” said Paige Howorth, associate curator of entomology at the San Diego Zoo. “Most people don’t realize that wildlife trafficking can affect all taxa, including arachnids and other invertebrates.”

OFF WITH THE OLD As it grows, a tarantula molts its old covering in a single piece. The "top" loosens, opening the body like a car hood, and the spider backs out of the exoskeleton. Look at the center of the "body" of this husk and you can see the openings from which the tarantula withdrew its legs.

OFF WITH THE OLD
As it grows, a tarantula molts its old covering in a single piece. The “top” loosens, opening the body like a car hood, and the spider backs out of the exoskeleton. Look at the center of the “body” of this husk and you can see the openings from which the tarantula withdrew its legs.

The center is home to more than 65 individual arachnids. Most are tarantulas that came to the Zoo after being confiscated from smugglers. In the last few years, wildlife trafficking, or the illegal poaching and smuggling of animals, plants, or their parts, has become a serious conservation issue affecting life-forms great and small. As wildlife officials work to stem the illegal trade, many accredited zoos, like San Diego Zoo Global, are providing sanctuary for the individual animals that are rescued by authorities.

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Who Ya Gonna Call?

The Zoo’s invertebrate collection has included tarantulas since 2003, and the bird-eating tarantula in the Dan and Vi McKinney Spineless Marvels Insect House has many fans. Last year, more animals came into our care as part of a border crossing confiscation, a role we have been playing since 2010. “Because of our experience and location, we’re a kind of a tarantula go-to,” Paige explains. After the arachnids are confiscated at the border, they are handed over to the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service, which makes a case against the smugglers involved. Because the animals are evidence, they must be cared for, but the agency doesn’t have the capacity for that. In addition to the expertise and space required to care for the creatures, Paige points out that we also have the means to find them homes in other AZA-accredited institutions, so we know they will be well cared for.

PINK TOES AND HIDEY-HOLES Left: The pink toe tarantula Avicularia avicularia attains this coloration as adults; as a juvenile it's the reverse: pink body, dark feet.   Right:  The Fort Hall baboon tarantula Pterinochgilus lugardi is a reclusive creature that spends most of its time hidden in its burrow.

PINK TOES AND HIDEY-HOLES
Left: The pink toe tarantula Avicularia avicularia attains this coloration as adults; as a juvenile it’s the reverse: pink body, dark feet.   Right:  The Fort Hall baboon tarantula Pterinochgilus lugardi is a reclusive creature that spends most of its time hidden in its burrow.

Caring for confiscated arachnids is not new to the Zoo; it’s been going on behind the scenes for years. However, the Arachnid Rescue Center brings this effort to the public’s attention. Most people don’t ponder the consequence of smuggled spiders, but arachnids play a vital role in the health of their ecosystems; decimating populations could trigger dominolike, negative results. Admittedly, some people don’t see the value in these animals, but the viewing area offers guests a chance to take a fresh, closer look.

 

Inside the Arachnid Rescue Center, shelves hold transparent containers that house the rescued tarantulas and spiders, and keepers rotate which species get the “window seats.” In addition to the living specimens, eager eyes can examine molted coverings. When keepers find a tarantula has shed its exoskeleton, the outgrown husk is carefully removed and placed where guests can see it—along with an explanation of what it is and how it came to be. Secretive and elusive by nature, tarantulas and other spiders are among the most misunderstood and maligned fauna on the planet. The Arachnid Rescue Center hopes to change that—and serves to help these eight-legged wonders now and in the future.

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