HARLINGEN — Under a street light, several tarantulas scurry in the bright beam as if they are on a dance floor.
Near the banks of the Arroyo Colorado, the big brown, barbed spiders splash shadows that crawl like dark hands across the road.
For the Texas tan tarantula, it’s mating season in the Rio Grande Valley.
In South Texas, the tan tarantula is one of the most common species of the big spiders, growing four to six inches long.
During most of the year, the solitary arachnids live in burrows along dry grasslands.
Then in spring, the male crawls from its winter burrow in search of a female.
“They’re mostly solitary animals,” Harlingen’s Rick Ramirez said. “They live by themselves until it’s time to mate. Then they wander around to search for a female to mate with.”
Since he can remember, Ramirez said the big spiders terrified him.
Then six years ago, they became the subject of his master’s thesis.
“They really creeped me out so I thought, ‘Let me get rid of my fear,’” Ramirez said.
So he bought his first pet tarantula.
“I became fascinated with them,” he admitted. “If you look at them, they look ancient like aliens, with all their joints, appendages and fangs — like little machines.”
The spider’s mating ritual captivates Ramirez, a San Benito High School biology teacher who also works as an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University in Kingsville.
“The male has to approach the female first,” he said. “The male has little hooks in his front legs so he can pin her down so she won’t eat him or bite him.”
After writing his thesis, Ramirez dove deeper into his research, adding tarantulas from around the world to his collection.
In the Valley, he’s among the many hobbyists who are turning tarantulas into pets.
Pet store sales
Nearly every day, Joshua Flores shows off a baby Giant Pinktoe tarantula to customers enticed by one of the most exotic animals at Harlingen Pets.
“Some people like the thrill of a tarantula,” he said. “Some people like raising them from spiderling. Some people just like saying they have a tarantula.”
But he keeps the $45 Pinktoe away from other pets.
“We have them behind the counter,” he said. “We don’t want people just opening up the cages that they’re unaware of what’s inside.”
For most, the creatures are a scary nuisance.
It’s the mating season that leads homeowners to call Julio Martinez to rid their homes of the big spiders.
“Tarantulas come out of the ground looking for a food source or sometimes to mate so we find them indoors and outdoors,” said Martinez, an exterminator with A-Plus Pest Control.
For most homeowners, tarantulas crawl deep into the psyche.
“We have clients who are actually terrified,” Martinez said. “Tarantulas aren’t normal spiders. They’re big. People get terrified when they see them walking across the floor or crawling across the wall.”
Even for experts, the big spiders can be an exterminator’s nightmare.
“Tarantulas are a lot harder to kill than regular spiders,” Martinez said. “They’re so high off the ground they don’t get in contact with the pesticide like other spiders.”
For tarantula lovers, an exterminator’s job seems barbarous.
That’s not fur
In the case of the tan tarantula, it looks more ominous than it is.
“For the most part they’re not too aggressive,” Ramirez said. “Their bite is kind of like a bee sting. Unless you’re allergic to it, it won’t have too much of an effect. If you get bitten you might have local swelling and redness.”
But the tan tarantula is not as furry as it looks.
“They look like they have hair but they’re little barbs sticking out,” Ramirez said. “When they feel like they’re in danger, their back legs kick up little barbs to get into the eyes of whatever is pursuing them. So if you hold one, wash your hands so the bards won’t get on your skin or eyes.”
And keep your nose away, too.
“The bards stay in the air for a while so you won’t want to breathe them,” Ramirez said. “If you see them kicking their legs move your face the other way for a little while.”
Ramirez also keeps a 10-inch-long Indian Ornamental.
About two years ago, he bought the giant spider from a “pet keeper” for $80, he said.
“That one I don’t touch. That one I don’t take out of the cage,” he said. “It’s very venomous. It’d probably take me to the hospital. It’s probably not life-threatening but may cause temporary paralysis of the area.”
Still, Ramirez has forged a strange love for tarantulas.
“I think they’re kind of misunderstood,” he said. “They’re pretty old lineage — they’ve been around for a long time. If people knew their benefits — they keep the pest population down by eating roaches and crickets — they wouldn’t kill them or be afraid.”