LOS ANGELES — Tarantulas are the heaviest, hairiest, scariest spiders on the planet. They have fangs, claws and barbs. They can regrow body parts and be as big as dinner plates, and the females eat the males after mating. But there are many people who call these creepy critters a pet or a passion and insist their beauty is worth the risk of a bite.
"They are fascinating to watch. They have (eight) beautiful slender legs; you look at how they are put together and how they dig and burrow," said Dee Reynolds, a 36-year-old nurse who has more than 50 tarantulas at her Los Angeles home.
Reynolds doesn’t consider her tarantulas pets in the traditional sense, but she says a lot of people do and will name them, talk to them and show them off.
Plus, in terms of being pets, they have lots of benefits, she said. "They don’t need daily walks, they don’t have to be fed special diets, they don’t claw furniture or bark, and you don’t have to find somebody to take care of them when you go on vacation," said Reynolds.
But, unlike Fido or Whiskers, you can’t cuddle with them, dress them for Halloween or play catch. They can cost hundreds of dollars, but they can also live for 30 years.
Ken Macneil, 38, known as "Ken the Bug Guy," has about 7,000 tarantulas at his exotic pet shop in Tucson, Ariz., which he claims is one of the largest in the country. He sells everything from scorpions and cockroaches to ferrets, lizards and snakes, but nothing is as popular as the tarantula, and not just around Halloween.
His biggest tarantula is a mature male Goliath bird-eater that measures 10 inches long from front leg to back leg. The most expensive one Macneil has ever sold went for $900.
Macneil said his customers include museums, scientists and teachers and up to an estimated 20,000 pet owners and hobby enthusiasts.
A metallic blue tarantula is one of the most sought after, with females selling for about $400 this year. They were $700 last year, he said, because there was a shortage. "But so many were bred that the price dropped to $400. Babies were $200 last year, and this year, they are $100."
The tarantula starts life as a sling — short for spiderling — so they can be as small as a fingernail and grow as large as a dinner plate. It eats mostly live crickets, cockroaches and some mice. The spider turns prey into stew by pumping in venom through its fangs.
When you hold a tarantula, some feel like velvet, some like pipe cleaners and some have really bristly hairs, Reynolds said.
But there’s no handling her 8-inch bird-eater. "My girl happens to be wild. You can look, but don’t touch. She has a nasty attitude."
Many tarantulas are docile, however. Macneil has a 9-inch spider named Tess who is "extremely docile and loves you to hold her. They don’t like to be petted. Their barbs or hair would come out and make you itch," he said.
All tarantulas can bite, but most owners say it’s no worse than a bee sting, unless you are allergic. If you are, it can be fatal, Reynolds said. Although there is no documented case of a fatal bite, some of the spiders have more potent venom than others, and there is no anti-venom, so you treat the symptoms and hope for the best, she said.
Reynolds has never been bitten, but Macneil said he’s been bitten five or six times. He said it hurts for a few minutes, then goes numb.
So why do people keep and study tarantulas? For expert Stan Schultz, it’s about the exotic.
The 70-year-old from Calgary, Alberta, said he got interested in the critters when he was young because normal pets became boring.
Schultz has spent more than 45 years keeping, catching, importing, breeding, selling, writing and lecturing about tarantulas. His book, "The Tarantula Keeper’s Guide," is in its third edition and headed to its fourth.
At one time, Schultz had 1,300 tarantulas — all with names.
When asked to describe the most interesting thing about the spider, Schultz said recognizing the "basic aspects of learning and, dare I say it, intelligence in tarantulas. But, before you get your hopes up, they’re still closer to a cabbage than the family dog in smarts."