Finding a forever home for trafficked tarantulas
When wildlife authorities confiscate smuggled animals, the next step is figuring out what to do with them.
It’s a new day for a giant, hairy spider known as Lil’ Kim.
Things didn’t start well for her and 249 other baby tarantulas. The spiderlings were confiscated by United States Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors as part of a wildlife trade bust at Seattle–Tacoma Airport, in Washington State, in December 2018. The babies were so small that they’d been packed in deli cups and 35 mm film canisters.
Something about the paperwork drew their attention, says Danielle Abernethy, a supervisory inspector with the Fish and Wildlife Service whose territory includes Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. “Sometimes it's smuggling via documentation, where you put something on the documentation that is really similar, but it's not actually what you got,” she says.
After a bit of legwork, the inspectors determined that the shipment consisted of Brazilian whiteknee tarantulas and Brazilian salmon pink bird-eating tarantulas. This raised the alarm, Abernethy says, because Brazil doesn’t allow exportation of its native tarantulas.
The illegal international wildlife trade—from tarantulas for the pet trade to rhino horn for traditional medicine, and every other species and wildlife product imaginable—is worth billions of dollars each year. Between June 2018 and June 2019, for example, the Fish and Wildlife Service seized more than 9,000 arachnids, insects, and other arthropods, according to data collected by National Geographic for the story “Bug smuggling is big business.”
The service declined to comment on the point of origin or final destination of the baby tarantulas, and they didn’t offer details about the alleged perpetrators or the status of the investigation. But many illegal shipments of invertebrates to the U.S. take a circuitous route through European countries where import and transit restrictions based on country of origin can be lax.
When authorities take possession of animals believed to have been traded illegally, the animals become evidence in a criminal case. Once legal proceedings have concluded, efforts are made to relocate the animals where they can be cared for permanently, though under some circumstances they might be returned to the country of origin, released into the wild, or even euthanized.
This limbo can take time—20 months in Lil’ Kim’s case—and be stressful for the animals.
A ‘dedicated bug facility’
The Fish and Wildlife Service is able to house and care for confiscated animals temporarily, but it’s not equipped to host 250 tarantulas long-term, not to mention the thousands of other animals seized each year. “Luckily, we have lots of great partners,” Abernethy says.
“It’s not the call you want to get, because it means that animals are being trafficked,” says one of those partners, Erin Sullivan, the animal care manager at Woodland Park Zoo, in Seattle, Washington. “But it’s also kind of exciting. You think, ‘Oh, what is it going to be?’”
For the past 20 years, the zoo—just a 20-minute drive from Seattle–Tacoma Airport— has maintained what Sullivan calls a “dedicated bug facility,” with both the space and the trained staff to rear invertebrates.
Within hours of their confiscation at the airport, the Brazilian spiderlings were settling in at the zoo, each in its own tiny enclosure with water and food—baby crickets, baby cockroaches, and small mealworms.
Caring for confiscated animals is akin to triage. First steps are to make space for them, nurture them, and try to bring them back to normal. For 250 spiderlings smaller than a thumb, that task isn’t particularly difficult, Sullivan says—but tarantulas don’t stay babies forever.
As adults, Brazilian whiteknees and salmon pink bird-eaters can grow to the size of a salad plate. Although hairy, fang-faced adult tarantulas look intimidating, Sullivan says they’re delicate. “Tarantula abdomens are like water balloons,” she says. Drop or mishandle a tarantula, and it can burst.
Tarantulas are solitary creatures that can live 15 to 20 years, and as adults, they require individual, fish-tank-size homes. Woodland Park Zoo agreed to adopt 37 of the spiderlings, but all 250 would have been out of the question.
It takes a village
Because the itty bitty babies were all about the same size, it’s likely they weren’t plucked from the wild, Sullivan says. Instead, they were probably hatched in someone’s lab or basement. That itself wouldn’t preclude them from being released in the wild, but tarantulas are adapted to “very specific bioclimatic microcosms,” Sullivan says, which would make returning them to precisely the right kind of habitat extremely difficult.
In addition to her responsibilities at Woodland Park Zoo, Sullivan is chair of the Terrestrial Invertebrate Taxon Advisory Group, made up of members from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Through this network, she identified 10 organizations around the U.S. with the capacity and expertise to give the tarantulas good homes.
In the spring of 2019, with Fish and Wildlife Service approval, Sullivan started placing the growing spiders into plastic containers with enough space for them to stretch their legs, but not so big that a jolt could damage them. Then she dispatched the furry bundles to their next destinations, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles; Brevard Zoo, in Melbourne, Florida; Albuquerque Biological Park, in New Mexico; and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, in Ohio.
“We try to do everything we can to make it as least stressful as possible,” Sullivan says, and next-day mail delivery minimizes the travel time.
A body laid bare
Purdue University’s Bug Zoo, in West Lafayette, Indiana, received four quarter-size salmon pink bird-eating tarantulas in the fall of 2019 and a pair of fist-size Brazilian whiteknees in early August 2020.
Even when care is taken during transport, the process can be traumatic, and one of the whiteknees—the spider that would become known as Lil’ Kim—took it particularly hard. By the time she arrived in Indiana, she’d ejected nearly every hair on her abdomen, revealing a “bald tarantula butt,” as Gwen Pearson, outreach coordinator for the Department of Entomology at Purdue University and manager of the bug zoo, put it in a tweet.
The barbed hairs on a tarantula’s rear end, which cause irritation when they make contact with skin or eyes, help repel predators. But stress can also make a tarantula discharge the hairs, a response similar to that of a parrot picking at its plumage.
That’s what Lil’ Kim did during her journey from Seattle to Purdue. “Honestly, I haven’t seen it that bad before. She was just so unhappy,” Pearson says.
As to how the spider came to her memorable name, Pearson explains that the zoo already had an adult female whiteknee tarantula named after Kim Kardashian. So when the much smaller tarantula showed up, Pearson says it just made sense to call her Lil’ Kim.
Displaying tarantulas intercepted by authorities and telling their stories (especially when they’re personalized) can help raise awareness about the illegal trade and may help prevent other animals from being stolen from the wild.
“These tarantulas are incredibly useful as educational tools,” Pearson says. Even though visitors aren’t permitted to handle them (their fangs “could go right through my finger”), seeing them close up can help people appreciate how beautiful very large spiders can be.
In some instances, the saved tarantulas provide genetic diversity to enhance captive breeding programs. Just as zoos manage the genetics of captive lions and tigers, Pearson says each spider is given a code that is entered into a tarantula studbook to determine which future pairings would be beneficial and which would not. “We will have to be careful to not match them up with their siblings that were adopted by other zoos,” Pearson says.
Whereas species such as the Brazilian whiteknee tarantula are comparatively common in captivity, many others are rare, such as Poecilotheria metallica, a cobalt-blue tarantula native to India. This makes any confiscated individuals all the more valuable to maintaining healthy captive populations.
(Related: “Science Still Can't Explain Why These Tarantulas Are Blue”)
“There's so much pressure on all wildlife, but it's a very, very little-known fact that arachnids, and primarily tarantulas, face a lot of pressure from collecting,” says Paige Howorth, the McKinney Family Director of Invertebrate Care and Conservation at San Diego Zoo, in California. Her zoo didn’t receive any of the 250 spiders from the Seattle–Tacoma Airport bust, but cares for tarantulas from previous confiscations.
“It's a dual opportunity to educate about the importance of tarantulas’ role in the ecosystem as predators and to highlight habitat loss and over-collecting,” Howorth says. It’s also a chance to show visitors “that we can make a difference for wildlife if we're aware of all these issues.”
Every expert interviewed for this story emphasized how important it is for potential pet owners to do their homework before buying an animal. Not only should owners have an understanding of what it takes to care for the animal, but they should be aware of whether trade in a particular species is sustainable and legal.
If pet owners are not sure, Erin Sullivan recommends contacting a local zoo. “We’re always happy to help,” she says.
Lil’ Kim seems to have shrugged off her tribulations. Just a few weeks after arriving in Indiana with her bare rump, the tarantula shed her exoskeleton and unfurled a fresh, furry backside, Pearson says.
Which is good news, because this spider has important work to do.