She lives on the northern edge of Yale’s campus, near the end of a hallway of locked doors. As I get closer and closer, I begin to picture the ways she might react to my presence. She might try to scare me off by stridulating, rubbing her legs together so that they rasp loudly. She might try to sting me with her urticating hairs, which she can release from her abdomen with a flick. Or, if I have really overstepped my bounds, she might give me a nip, injecting my hand with venom and turning my sinews to soup.
Mabel is a tarantula, a Haitian Brown Bird-Eater. My job as an assistant at the Peabody Museum is to make her feel at home.
* * *
Mabel arrived at the Peabody last year, in a little plastic container that might be better suited to bringing leftovers for lunch. She was with two fellow Bird-Eaters, each about the size of your thumb-nail. As they grew, Mabel quickly outshone the two males she was with—she would become the biggest and pinkest of the three, with a dusty rose body visible beneath her brown bristles. When I come to visit, she is almost as big as my entire hand.
She is destined to join the leafcutter ants and bearded dragons in the Peabody’s “Discovery Room”, where she will be the centerpiece of a corner devoted to arthropods. In the meantime, she lives in a storage space in the Environmental Science Center.
To most people, this room is an amalgam of nightmares. It is the kind of room where a Stasi interrogation might take place: white walls, low ceiling, bright lights, the incessant hiss of ventilation. At any moment, a dour official of the GDR could enter and begin talking you to death. Alternatively, the arthropods that line the walls could make for excellent instruments of torture. While Mabel and her fellow tarantulas are the only ones that can truly inflict harm, the others are just as fearsome looking. There are red-eyed flightless fruit flies whose maggots squirm on the walls of clear containers. There are tailless whip scorpions that look like huge armored ticks. There are meal worms as fat and long as my little finger, walking sticks with sharp-looking black jaws, and big hissing cockroaches from Madagascar.
But if you can put aside your claustro-, arachno-, and entomophobias for long enough to venture inside, you will realize it is a masterpiece of planning, a collection of perfectly curated little universes. Holly Hopkins, a retired grade-school teacher from Stony Creek, Connecticut, is one of the people responsible for keeping these worlds in balance.
“I was one of those kids who always comes home with fireflies and butterflies, and salamanders in my pocket,” Holly says. Her mother had to carefully pick through clothes before doing the laundry to make sure that none of Holly’s creatures was clinging in a fold.
Now, she keeps her charges in much cushier environments. Mabel lives in a dollar-store terrarium carpeted with dark wood chips. They give off an earthy, tangy smell, like that of a forest floor, and they create the same kind of rough terrain. There are little dips and gullies where crickets can hide while she is stalking them; there are dimples into which she can nestle when she wants to sleep. Holly also thought Mabel might like some privacy, and so brought her a toilet paper roll devoid of all its paper: Mabel likes to crawl into the cardboard tube and sit with her eight legs scrunched together, the way you might curl up in a bean bag chair. If she read the Sunday Times, this is where she’d do it.
Mabel’s crickets are purchased every Friday, and brought from the pet store in a clear air-filled plastic bag. They live in a terrarium smaller than hers, decorated primarily with egg cartons. Three times a week, Holly reaches in, shakes off the turd-flecked cartons and sets them on the counter. The space is nearly empty now, and she can easily reach in to snatch a few crickets one by one. Not only does she ferry them across the room, trapped in a tiny container; she also prepares them, dusting their bodies with “Herptivite: Multivitamins for All Reptiles and Amphibians.” This powder is whitish yellow, and reeks of rotten fish, but apparently does nothing to hinder tarantula appetites.
The crickets themselves are well-fed. They get fresh organic greens, and Cricket Food Bites, which “gutloads any insect into a power building health food!”
Holly has perfected this feeding ritual down to every last move. When changing Mabel’s water, she even squishes a paper towel into the bowl—it breaks the surface like an iceberg—to make sure that the spider does not fall in and drown.
* * *
Mabel does not stridulate as I approach the see-through walls of her home. She does not urticate, or rear back like a startled horse, as she sometimes has when Holly is trying to feed her. She just sits there.
I had seen none of this when I was told I would be designing the Haitian Bird-Eater display. All I had was Phormictopus cancerides, Mabel’s Latin name.
What does a tarantula want? How was I supposed to know? I was a sheltered Jewish boy from Montreal now living at Yale. What contact had I had with tarantulas? So I did what any undergraduate would do: I consulted Wikipedia. I hoped that its reference section on P. cancerides would point me to more scholarly sources. I found, instead, that it pointed me towards Kovarik Frantisek’s Chov Sklipkanu, a tarantula-keeping manual in Czech, and what seems to be a list of spider species found around the world. The only peer-reviewed paper on this species explains that if you cut off its food supply its metabolism slows.
Jewish Montrealers, on the other hand, have been written about extensively. You can log on to Google Scholar and find out about the risk I have of contracting colorectal cancer, about the way my English differs from that of my waspy neighbors, about the politics of my community institutions.
It was by calling up tarantula-keepers around the world that I learned what I know about Phormictopus cancerides. I learned that coconut mulch, sphagnum moss or peat all would work as alternate substrates but not sand, gravel, or rock. I learned that red or blue lights might show her off better, making the daylight hours look like night.
Beside her terrarium are others, now empty, a sprinkling of dirt or sand the only reminder of their last occupant. There are piles of drinking bowls, the plastic striated to look like algae-slick rock. I cannot help thinking of my own past rooms. They are not so far from here, each furnished by a keeper who knows exactly what I need: a writing desk, a chair, a bed, a dresser, some book shelves. And I wonder what those people would think if they were to peer into my window to watch me for a few minutes.
After a while, Mabel’s legs begin to twitch, and I know it is time to go.