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Wellington Zoo has just imported 106 Chilean rose tarantulas as part of a captive breeding program for these lovely animals. From the tone of a letter in today’s Waikato Times, the spiders are also in need of a public relations officer.

For in today’s Waikato Times, we find the following letter:

I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that Wellington Zoo had just imported 106 venomous tarantulas from Wales.

OK, I thought, someone who’s understandably not too keen on potentially dangerous exotic animals coming in (although the tarantulas don’t pose any real risk to our biodiversity, given that the zoos will need to keep them in heated terrariums: they would not be able to survive long in the wild). But I was wrong. The writer continues

Collections development manager Simon Eyre said: “We’re excited that visitors will be able to see them close up and gain a real appreciation for their beauty.”

Am I missing something? A lamb or deer is beautiful – but a cruel, carnivorous tarantula?

Well, I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder**, but what’s this cruelty stuff? Tarantulas do what tarantulas do, and nature is indeed ‘red in tooth and claw’ at times. That’s nature for you. But the overlay of cruelty is a human-perspective construct.

Given that these spiders can live for more than 20 years, how many defenceless crickets, grasshoppers, etc will be subjected to a cruel and terrifying death when dropped into the tank with these monsters who “use their venom to liquefy the insides of insects”?

At 4-6 crickets every 3 weeks (or a locust a week), the answer is about 2700/tarantula, over those 20 years. The intake would be pretty much the same, whether the tarantulas were in the wild or in captivity. The scare quotes really aren’t needed for the spiders’ feeding method, though; again, it’s just the way spiders – all spiders – feed. They’re an example of fluid feeders, sucking up pre-digested food once the enzymes in their venom have broken down the dead prey animal’s tissues.

In the wild, prey would at least have a chance to save themselves. In this day and age, when we can learn everything about animals from documentaries and the internet, there is no justification for imprisoning any animals in zoos. Importing venomous spiders seems like madness as well.

I have to disagree – we can’t “learn everything” from sitting in front of a monitor. We can be awed & amazed & horrified, perhaps, but I do think that the world would be a sadder place if people never had the opportunity to actually see a living, breathing meerkat, or tiger – or tarantula. A well-designed zoo is as little like a ‘prison’ as possible, and in a world where the natural environment is under threat from human activity, for many species a zoo may be a place of refuge. (Pere David’s deer would have long since become extinct without one.) Those animals on the other side of the glass, or fence, or moat are ambassadors for that endangered environment in the way that a ‘virtual’ creature can never be.

 

** and if you want a beautiful little spider, how could you possibly go pass the lovely peacock spider? This gorgeous little salticid has the usual jumping spider cuteness and complex courtship dance, all set off by colours I’ve never seen before in a spider.