I saved a spider today.

My relationship with spiders is complicated.  I usually go with the standard line about them scaring me, but there’s a lot more to it than that.  Because, in a lot of circumstances, I can tolerate them, and in some circumstances, I am quite fond of them, and in other circumstances, I ask my husband to kill them for me.

My thoughts about my relationship with spiders started on Tuesday, when one of my coworkers brought a small black widow spider into the herp society as a gift for our boss’s kids.  (I assume there had been some previous discussion that I was not a party to, because it seems to be it would be a pretty odd gift without one.)  It was in a small jelly jar with holes poked into the canning lid.  The boss didn’t seem the least surprised, the kids seemed pretty delighted, and since it was in glass I was totally cool with a venemous spider in the same room with me, but I sure didn’t go and take a close look.

Now, working at a herpetological society means that you are likely to be working with people whose ideas about the organisms around us do not sync with the average person’s.  I had noticed a number of small spiders lurking in odd nooks and corners in both the office and the warehouse.  In particular, there was one spider with a web that ran all the way along the wall of the bathroom, right next to the toilet but down at ankle-level.  The proximity to my vulnerable, peeing ankle might have made this spider a threat, but it always sat, motionless, in its web, which was underlined by a neat line of discarded gnat carcasses on the floor, all approximately 1/2 an inch from the wall.  I assumed that no one disturbed this spider and the others  due to their important role in the local ecosystem.  And, honestly, I respect the work that spiders do for us, getting rid of all kinds of irritating, flying bugs.  That’s part of this complicated attitude of mine, which I’ll get into a little more.

But on Thursday, a different coworker of mine, H, had accidentally scattered bits of paper from the shredder all over the floor of the main office.  And so the ancient canister vacuum was broken out for cleaning.  And she went on a spider hunt.

Spider in the bathroom?  Sucked up and gone.  Three more in the main office?  Also gone.  Spiders, webs, dust, paper bits, and dead gnats were all sucked up and disposed of.  And H and I had quite a long conversation about our mutual dislike of spiders (although we both agreed that, for some reason, tarantulas weren’t nearly as scary as house spiders *shrug*).

Now, here’s the thing.  I actually had become somewhat fond of the bathroom spider.  I felt a little bad that she had gotten sucked up and was gone.  Not bad enough to stop the arachnicide, but there was a twinge.

And here is where my complicated relationship with spiders comes in.  When I am outdoors, spiders in their webs fascinate me.  Even the ones that are 2″ across.  If one crawls on me, I will flick it off, and that is that.  No screaming, no disgust.  And I have observed some fascinating spider behavior in those settings.

I once watched a small spider building her web in a corner next to a larger spider’s web.  She was trying to make room for herself, and one of the lines of his web was in her way.  I watched her pluck at the offending strand three times in succession, each time making the larger spider shake his web, while she stayed motionless until he was done.  After the third pluck, she quickly and cleanly snapped the strand without disturbing him in the least, and then continued making her web.

I once saw what I thought was a yellow jacket wasp struggling in a spider’s web, and went over to watch the process.  The spider was smaller than the wasp, and I was wondering how he would wrap the larger wasp up.  Turns out, the spider was actually the one fighting for his life.  The wasp grabbed the spider out of his web, flew to a nearby branch, and ate him, head first.  Talk about a surprise!

The summer I lived in Portland, OR, we lived on a hill and didn’t have a driveway, but we did have a steep flight of stairs and a walkway from the sidewalk to the front door, surrounded by ivy, bushes and trees.  When we first moved in, I hated being the first person leaving the house in the morning, and the first returning in the evening, because spiders would make their webs across the path during the early mornings and evenings.  You would catch a dozen or more webs across the face as you entered or left the house.  But after a few months, I was coming up the steps one evening when I realized that it had been quite a while since I had been hit by a web across the face.  I turned and looked behind me, where the evening light was turning all the webs gold.  I realized that there were still dozens of webs going from one side of the path to the other, but they canted at different angles, creating a tunnel that we walked through.  By taking out all of the webs that were within our walkway, we had “trained” our spiders where to make their webs!

When I worked for a planning firm in Redding, CA, there was no break room to eat lunch in.  As a way of getting a mental break, I would sneak out into a pass-through in the building that went behind our offices, and eat lunch in the shade on the concrete steps.  The pass-through was rarely used, and there were a lot of spiders back there.  Once day, I realized that there was a small black widow on the ground, curled up and dying.  I didn’t see any others around — most of the other spiders were daddy longlegs, another species of spider that I am not afraid of — but I reminded myself to keep an eye out when I was back there.  The next day, I noticed one of the daddy longlegs hauling the dead black widow up into her web.  She fed off it for the next three days, and when I came back on Monday, the empty black widow had been discarded on the floor.

So that’s rule #1 for me: outdoor spiders are okay.  I think the rationale is, I am in their space, therefore I should respect them.  Or something.  All I know is, when they are outdoors, they are much less likely to freak me out.

Rule #2: hard-shelled spiders are much less gross than soft-bodied ones.  I don’t know why, maybe because they tend to have better markings, maybe because they seem more mechanical and less squishy, they usually don’t creep me out as badly as the meaty-looking ones.  Hairy is better than naked, too.

Rule #3: a spider that keeps to itself is okay.  A spider that’s hanging out in a web, in a corner, not moving, just doing it’s own thing, is fine by me.  I mentally declare a truce, tell it to mind its own business, I will mind mine, and everything will be okay.

Rule #4: a moving spider is a threat.  While just looking at some spiders grosses me out, what gets to me the most about them is the way their legs move.  That is why I do not watch movies like “Arachnophobia,” or “Eight-Legged Freaks.”  In fact, just thinking about it gives me the heebie-jeebies.  *shudder*

Rule #5: most of the time, I cannot get close enough to a spider to kill it on my own.  If a spider is not following rules 1-3, then I will ask someone else to do something about it.  My grad school roommate was the type who would lovingly scoop it up and take it outside.  My husband squashes them with a tissue.  I don’t really care either way, as long as there isn’t a looming spider, running around over my head anymore.

Rule #6: when attacked directly, I will take a spider out.  Usually, this happens when I am wearing shoes and a spider runs straight at me.  They simply get stepped on.  Occasionally, this happens in the shower, and I flush that itsy bitsy spider right down the water spout, and keep running water hard into the drain until I am SURE it is gone.  In fact, about a month ago, I woke up in the early morning hours to pee and get a drink.  I filled the cup that sits in the bathroom for that purpose, and just as I got it up to my lips, there was just enough light for me to see that there was a spider floating at the top of the water.  I dumped it and ran that water for a good 5 minutes, on hot.  And I now make sure to fill, swish, dump, and then refill my cup before taking a middle-of-the-night drink.

Rule #7: if a spider obeys rules 1-3, I can actually begin thinking of it as a pet.  The first time this happened was when I was living in Portland.  We had a little daddy longlegs living in our bathroom, tucked into a corner by the back edge of the sink.  He was a plain, gray daddy longlegs, and at first I kept a close eye on him to be sure he wasn’t going to make a move while I was brushing my teeth.  But after a while, I got used to him.  The one day, I realized that his abdomen seemed to be shrinking, and he was turning a paler and paler gray.  I didn’t realize that I was actually getting attached to him until I walked in a few weeks later to find him fat and dark-colored, with a bug wrapped up in his web, and realized that I was relieved the little guy had gotten himself a meal.

In the Pacific Northwest, we get spiders with large, orange abdomens and black legs, that are known as pumpkin spiders.  During my second year of grad school, we had one of these spiders living in the rafters just above our front door, on the underside of the upstairs tenants’ stairs and entrance.  It was an ideal spot, right next to the front light, which attracted a lot of bugs.  During the day, she would tuck herself back into a corner, but in the evening, she would come out and gorge on gnats and midges.  She was quite big, but hard-shelled, and her colors were lovely.  My roommate and I found ourselves keeping an eye on her, and making sure she was still there when we got home in the evenings.  Well, Halloween rolled around, and we had a handful of trick-or-treaters.  One of the last groups of the night was a rowdy, noisy bunch of teenagers, who we gave candy to.  We could hear them fooling around outside our door and making a lot of noise for several minutes, and then one of the girls started shrieking, the boys were laughing, and there were several loud thumps up high on the wall.  Our spider!, I thought.  I was furoious, and literally ran to the front door.  I was fully prepared to yell at the kids if they had done anything to hurt our spider, but they were long gone.  Her web was torn up, but after a few anxious minutes I found that she was still there, tucked back into her corner.  I was surprised at the ferocity with which I was willing to defend her!

So now to get back to the start of this story.  After Tuesday’s spider gift at work, and yesterday’s spider massacre, I had to deposit my paycheck on the way into work this morning.  I walked into the vestibule to use the ATM, since the bank wasn’t open yet, and sitting on the counter with the chained pen and the deposit slips, was a clear plastic drinking cup with a spider in it.  He was a meaty, brown one, the kind that look like they’re wearing boxing gloves on their front legs, the worst kind.  And he was running around the bottom of the cup.  It seemed pretty odd to intentionally place a captured spider in the vestibule of a bank, so I assume the cup was left there and he fell in, and then wasn’t able to escape.  I thought about what I should do as I completed my transaction.  And then I picked up the cup, carried it outside, and laid it on its side in the planting bed right next to the door.  I left the cup there, so in one way, I was littering.  But in another, I was helping return an important critter to its alloted place in the local environment.  It made me feel pretty good.

But if he’d climbed up the side of the cup at me?  I totally would have taken him out.

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