‘THE KITTENS OF THE SPIDER WORLD’
Inside the Growing Subculture of Insect Pet Owners
By Heide Brandes
Kathy Hendricks pointed at the shelves of little plastic cups that decorate her living room. In each cup, tiny black dots scurried about and crawled along the sides.
The cups hold spider babies, specifically jumping spider babies. In other containers, full-grown jumping spiders darted around playfully as she teased and cooed to them. The black widow spider was too serious for play. It sat, fat and quiet, like a hanging judge in its own home.
In other places around Hendricks’ home, praying mantises swiveled their bulbous heads in search of the flies that Hendricks feeds them. They paid no mind to the perfect replicas of molted tarantula skins that Hendricks collected from her big spider pets.
In all, Hendricks said she probably has more than 1,000 spider and bug pets in her home. As a spider breeder and collector, the Oklahoma native is part of a growing subculture of bug pet breeders and pet owners that is crawling toward popularity in the underbelly of exotic pets.
“That’s a little escape jumper on my window. I find them in my curtains and stuff. I love jumpers. They are so fun, and they are just as curious about you as you are about them. I call them the playful kittens of the spider world,” Hendricks, 37, said.
Hendricks grew up in Claremore, Oklahoma City and Texas and was fascinated by multi-legged critters from the start.
“In Texas and Oklahoma, there’s such biodiversity there. I’ve always been a fan of bugs,” she said. “Growing up on a farm, I was taught from an early age to have a respect for insects. You learn the good ones from the bad ones. So, like with the jumping spiders in particular, I realized what valuable pest control they were, and I knew better than to smush them.”
Hendricks said she was a girly-girl who wore princess dresses while flipping over rocks to find spiders. Her fascination grew as she became an adult and started creating art for the Oddities & Curiosities Expos.
“I was buying dead tarantulas to use in art,” she said. “Instead of buying the dead spiders, I decided to get a tarantula and collect their molts for myself. When a tarantula molts, it sloughs off its skin, which is a perfect replica of itself.”
When she bought her first tarantula three years ago, Hendricks found online groups and communities of bug enthusiasts. She discovered a subculture of people who kept jumping spiders as pets and saw there was a market for the eight-legged furry arachnids.
“There’s a lot of talk and concern within the oddities community about ethical sourcing. Did you take this insect out of the wild? Is this having some kind of effect on the environment? And that’s a really good question to stop and ask yourself about some of these species,” Hendricks said.
“But I love the jumping spiders. They are so playful, and they are so smart. They interact with you and follow you and are really curious about you. I just love watching their little antics.”
Hendricks began raising native and some non-native jumping spiders to sell at reptile expos and curiosity expos in Kentucky, where she lives now. She also breeds the spiders to sell nationwide.
“Any good breeder at an expo will tell you how to take care of an animal because we want them to go to good homes. I don’t want you to kill all my babies,” she said. “I joined Facebook groups of spider collectors. There are people in those groups that have been in the hobby for 20 or 30 years. There’s one group that has about 20,000 people in it. … and there’s some specifically for breeders.”
Like other pet owners, Hendricks goes out of her way to spoil her little spider pets. She makes little miniature sets and houses for them, and many people use the little bugs as models for photography.
“Jumpers are great models. They’ll pose for you and interact with you. They make eye contact with you when most bugs don’t seem really that interested in you,” she said.
Kelly Shufeldt-Rodriguez, 37, also discovered a love of jumping spiders—and found a sort of salvation in them as well.
A Fort Townson, Oklahoma, native, Shufeldt-Rodriguez said she feels peace in the multiple eyes of the little furry arachnids after suffering years of post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in the Air Force as a medic in Iraq.
In 2009, she was deployed during a particularly “intense and brutal” time in Iraq. The losses and horrors she survived followed her home, and over the next six years, that stress made her life hell.
“In 2014, I was diagnosed with PTSD from my deployment,” she said. “It was a rough deployment, and there aren’t that many of us still around from that time. When I was deployed, Iraq was very hot, so summer is a very hard time for me. I really suffer during the summer months when it’s hot outside. It brings up some bad memories.”
Last spring, she was gearing up to survive another summer when a teeny tiny jumping spider jumped on her. She called for her husband to bring his professional camera to take a close-up picture of the friendly visitor.
“That’s when my husband showed me how to take the close-up pictures,” she said.
Shufeldt-Rodriguez grew up in southeastern Oklahoma with an outdoor father who often taught his six children about bugs, spiders and lizards. She was no stranger to the creepy crawly residents of nature, but that little jumping spider sparked something inside of her.
“There was very much a sense of awe and a ‘wow’ factor when you zoom up close to the spider. I’ve always been fascinated by spiders, and jumping spiders are very inquisitive and not reclusive at all,” she said.
“They like to explore. They jump on you. When you move, they notice, and they look at you and tilt their little heads like they want to understand you. Once I got down on its level, it was looking at me, and I was looking at it. Our eyes met, and there was a shared moment of ‘wow.’”
She eventually found the jumping spider Facebook group and began sharing her photos. Through the group, she met Hendricks, who gave her three baby jumping spiders. Eventually, she had up to 22 jumping spiders in little spider houses that she and Hendricks made.
“Around February, I decided to bring them back outside. I only have three spiders left,” Shufeldt-Rodriguez said. “I learned so much from keeping them as pets. Last summer, when I discovered macro photography and spiders, that was the first summer in a long time that I felt peace and joy. I still have rough days, but they are interspersed with lots of lovely days of photographing and caring for the spiders I adopted.”
NOT SO STRANGE AFTER ALL
Keeping bugs as pets isn’t as strange as one might think. Bugs are so popular as pets, most people can buy hundreds of varieties online. Ghost and orchid praying mantises, along with tarantulas and scorpions, are growing in popularity. In Japan, stag beetles are so sought after that they are sold in dollar stores.
“Keeping non-traditional pets, including insects and arthropods or what we refer to as ‘bugs,’ is becoming common. What was once considered a kind of strange hobby is gaining attention, and more people seem interested in learning how best to care for reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates,” said Erica Buckwalter, Family and Interpretive Programs manager for the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Like with any pet, it’s essential to do research prior to acquiring a new animal for your family, she said. And when it comes to invertebrates, there are so many to choose from.
“When researching your potential pal, it’s important to consider the following: nutritional needs, habitat size and containment, social structure and lifespan. You don’t want to be surprised when your new animal doesn’t stick around, whether it be because they were sneaky and got out or because they were at the end of their life cycle,” Buckwalter said.