Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Great Tarantula Selloff of 1975!

Tarantulas are a staple of life in most of West Texas.  Big old hairy things, far more scary looking than actually dangerous, you see them crossing the roads at night and occasionally find them under a board or sheet of tin.  I live on the easternmost edge of their range, so they are fairly rare in m neck of the woods - I haven't seen one around here in years.  But it wasn't always that way.
When I was a kid, there was an area in north Greenville, across the street from the park, where an old railroad had once run.  The metal tracks had been torn up, but the rail bed was still there, as were the wooden ties.  This rail bed was home to the only colony of tarantulas in our area.  I'd go up there every time I came back to Greenville (we were living in Dallas at the time, where my Dad had taken on a pastorate) and lift up a tie to hunt for them. Usually there were two or three under each railroad tie, living in separate burrows. I'd catch one and leave the rest; taking it back to our house to show off at school or sell to a classmate.

Now, during our time in Dallas, nearly every Sunday after church, we went to eat at Luby's cafeteria in Town East Mall.  Right across from Luby's was a huge pet store called SunRay Pets (sadly gone now).  I'd eat my meal in like, five bites, and then run over to the pet store to hang out and look at all the cool critters while mom and dad finished their meal at a leisurely pace, visiting with the other church members.  The store had boa constrictors, birds, fish (even a couple of piranha that were labeled NOT FOR SALE!).  And they had spiders and scorpions.  One thing that surprised me was how expensive pet tarantulas were!  Plain old brown tarantulas, just like I caught on the old tracks, were going for $15 each (keep in mind, this was 1975 - that was some serious money!).  So I asked Bernie, the store manager, what he paid for them.  He said he bought them for $7.50 each and sold them at 100% markup.  Well, being the young capitalist entrepreneur that I was, I asked him if he would buy them from me for $5 each.  He said "SURE!"

So that Saturday, armed with a king size pickle jar, I went up to those tracks and lifted up every single railroad tie. Hairy spiders scurried hither and thither to escape abduction, but few did. I caught a grand total of 23 tarantulas.  At $5 each, that was A HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN DOLLARS!  That was almost unlimited wealth for a 6th grader in 1975! My eyes were filled with visions of all the things I could buy with this small fortune.  I got home with the jar and dumped them all in a big terrarium in my room, and Dad promised to take me to SunRay pets first thing the next morning so I could sell them.  (Oddly enough, my mother, who was terrified of snakes, was somehow OK with 23 large hairy spiders contained only by a thin wall of glass in her youngest son's bedroom.)

I slept the sleep of the noveau riche, my mind aflutter with visions of spider-fueled wealth, and all the comic books, monster magazines, and scale models I would be able to buy soon.  Sure, I heard some odd sounds coming from the tank on my dresser, but it was full of energetic spiders! No problem, right?
Then I  woke up bright and early, and looked into the cage to see . . . dozens of spider legs and ONE very fat tarantula!  They had all eaten each other during the night, and the rustling sounds I had heard were the noises of arachnian mortal combat.  Apparently, there could be only ONE!
(Actually, that's technically inaccurate; late that afternoon as I was cleaning spider legs out of the cage I found one very small tarantula that had hidden under a rock to escape the carnage.  I was trying to grab him when the big one spotted him and had him for dessert.)
I honestly did  not know they were cannibals!
(To quote WKRP IN CINCINNATI, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!")
I kept that undefeated champion and named him Goliath.  He was my pet for the next two years, then I sold him to my 8th grade English teacher for $20.  He was a big spider, as large as my hand, but i still would rather have had my $115.
And I don't think I've seen another tarantula in Greenville since then.  Apparently I wiped out the whole colony!