Animals Opinion

Spider man Mark David attempts the unlikely

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Wolf Spider (Image by Mark David)

MY HOME life involves lots of spiders. Quite a few of them are rather big – Huntsman and Wolf – and in the kitchen.

I catch them and take them outside before the dog can get to them. I do this because I like spiders.

You might be wondering why I like the kind of critter that sends some people running. It’s because spiders are people too. But I’m also aware that many humans don’t like them. The truth is, spiders get a lot of bad press.

I could pretend I don’t know why, but of course, I know why. Spiders can be scary, with all those legs and fangs and things. Especially the really big spiders and especially those really big ones when they fall down the front of your shirt.

So, I sit at my keyboard compelled to correct what I believe is an unfortunate imbalance in the spider's narrative — and along the way, I will tell you some of the things that I have learned about them.

Now, you’re probably thinking I’ll start by banging on about spiders eating pest insects and playing an essential role in balancing ecosystems and how that helps keep other species, like humans, alive. And it would all be true. But that's been said a lot already and the message isn’t working, because people know it and they still don’t like spiders.

Allow me, then, to try another angle. I intend to focus on the warm and fuzzy side of spiders. Well, okay. I’m pushing my luck with “warm” because they are, after all, cold-blooded invertebrates. But see one up close and you can’t deny “fuzzy”.

A Wolf Spider carrying her babies on her back (Image by M. David)

I remember exactly the day I first became interested in spiders. I was a young boy, hanging off a rotating Hills Hoist – not because I needed drying but because I liked to ride it – and as I gripped the line and kicked off to start the thing rotating, a huge spider climbed off it onto my hand and then crawled the full length of my bare arm.

I couldn’t let go of the line because I was too high for a safe landing. Faced with letting go of the line and risking injury – or chancing it with the spider – I chose the latter until the clothesline had done a full rotation back to the steps. It felt like the longest Hills Hoist ride of my life. And while that ended my fascination with the clothesline, it certainly kicked off my fascination with spiders.

You see, I thought that if I just understood them better then I wouldn’t fear them so much.

It soon became easy to choose my Christmas presents. While my friends would revel in the acquisition of toys, cricket bats and soccer balls, a book about spiders would keep me contented for hours.

While my friends were collecting footy cards, I was collecting spiders — actual spiders — and preserving them in formaldehyde. I still have a large Sydney funnel-web (Atrax robustus) spider from that era, with all its bits intact but sadly faded by decades of daylight. I was probably about ten years old when I collected that one.

All these years later, I have come to like photography as much as I like spiders, so the thought of combining my interests made a lot of sense. I even admit to bringing spiders indoors and plonking them onto my desk, where it’s easier to hold a camera steady for that perfect shot.

I once tried this in the middle of winter, when cold temperatures made the spider lethargic and unlikely to cause mischief. What I learned that day is that spiders warm up really quickly when you bring them into a warm house. So, I admit it was a bit creepy watching the spider become more animated through the magnified display of my viewfinder. But I was happy with my photos and the spider survived the ordeal just fine before I took it back outside again. As did I.

Ten years ago I moved to a semi-rural part of South East Queensland. I was excited to see that the house came well stocked with spiders. This was a feature that had not been mentioned by the real estate agent, so I considered it a lucky bonus.

Each night before bed I got into the habit of catching large Wolf Spiders and Huntsmans to take them outside to the garden for release. There’s one particular palm tree with a rough textured trunk and the spiders would end up there because I figured there would be places for them to hide and things for them to eat.

After so many years of this practice, I fear that if anyone gave that palm tree a good shake, so many spiders would fall out of it, it would be like school coming out.

It seemed like a great idea to try to get a nice picture of a Wolf Spider. Because we all need a hobby and our house was the place to see them.

Close-up of Wolf Spider babies (Image by M. David)

I made a little “set” with a curved sheet of paper, similar to the backdrops that fashion photographers use to avoid seeing the edge of the floor. The idea was to put a Wolf Spider on that paper and then lie down in front of it to take my photo.

What I learned that evening is that Wolf Spiders don’t like standing still when you put them on a curved sheet of paper and lie down in front of them. But I did eventually get my photo and that spider, too, was gently taken outside to live the spider dream in the palm tree.

There is one type of spider, though, for which I need a bit more nerve than others — the Huntsman. I used to have a genuine phobia about Huntsmans – and only Huntsmans – so I’m pleased that the desensitising experiment that I tried on myself worked well enough for me to lie down in front of one with my camera. But the practice takes on a whole new dimension outside at night.

With no street lighting in our area, it can get crazy-dark at our place at night. I’m talking can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. Or, rather, can’t-see-the-spider-in-front-of-your-face dark.

My technique involves wandering around with a torch at night, looking for a huge spider on the ground and lying down in front of it. Then I use the torch to illuminate the spider enough to focus the camera. Then I turn the torch off and take a shot using the flash. Turning the torch off prevents the “colour temperature” of its light from affecting the accuracy of the colours in the spider.

If it all goes well, you see a burst of flashlights going off and then the screen on your camera lights up in front of you with a lovely close-up portrait of the spider.

The problem is that sometimes you look at your photo and realise there’s no spider in it. Which means it moved when you turned your torch off. That invites all sorts of speculation about where the spider went while you were lying in front of it in the dark. And what I learned is... the bigger the spider, the wilder the speculation.

I wouldn’t recommend that technique for venomous spiders — or, for that matter, with venomous anything. But it’s meant a lot of fun for me in a place that came with a lot of spiders.

Mark David is IA's resident cartoonist. You can see more cartoons from Mark on his website Mark David Cartoons, or follow him on Twitter @mdavidcartoons.

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