Summer of the Tarantula

If you're hosting a child's class pet over the summer, good luck!

Mom, Mrs. Coulter needs someone to take home the pet tarantula for the summer. Can we do it, please, please?!” My 10 year old daughter was barely in the car before her excited request bombarded me. My mind was whirling with one hundred reasons why this was NOT a good idea. Really, a huge, furry, black spider in our house for the entire summer?! As if my life as a single mother wasn’t complicated enough trying to manage two children, a job, a house and a rapidly growing menagerie that already included three cats, two mice and a beta fish. Yet, as my logic was  desperately screaming no, my heart was insisting on yes as I looked at my daughter’s animated, happy face.

There was nothing my daughter loved more than animals. Her first word was kitty-kat, and over the next nine years most of her subsequent words somehow involved animals, reptiles or insects. Science was her absolute favorite subject, and Mrs. Coulter, the science teacher, was definitely her favorite teacher. How could I throw barriers in her burgeoning career as a future veterinarian? My daughter’s near-perfect track record at taking care of her pets pushed me over the edge and the words “Sure honey, we’ll take it for the summer” tumbled out of my mouth.

Summer break couldn’t come fast enough for my daughter as she anticipated the arrival of another creature to care for. Although I had grown up in the country, I was blissfully ignorant of what care a tarantula required until the science teacher gave me a quick education on the last day of school. The tarantula ate what?? Live crickets?! I would need to go buy live crickets once a week to feed the tarantula? Gulp. Ok, we were in too deep to back out now, I thought as we carried the glass terrarium with our summer visitor out to the mini-van. Both my kids were so excited, I’m sure they didn’t notice the stress lines between my eyes deepening and droplets of sweat forming on my upper lip.

The tarantula settled into his new digs, safely ensconced in his glass home in my daughter’s bedroom. We made our first trip to buy crickets, and I managed to get through the check-out line carrying a bag of chirping, hopping crickets with only a few shivers of disgust as I thought of their impending fate. It turns out the purchasing part of live crickets is the easy part. Depositing the crickets into the tarantula’s lair, I cringed as hideous screeching sounds soon emanated from the enclosure. The cycle of life became a little too real that day. Thank goodness tarantulas only need to eat a few crickets a week, so we learned to feed them and leave the house immediately. A new meaning to “fast food!”

For the most part, the hairy guest needed very little care and provided hours of fascination for my science-loving, animal-obsessed daughter. I smugly reflected that I was a good mother and that taking home the classroom pet had been a great move. As the summer quickly passed, my daughter looked forward to proudly reporting her wonderful care of the spider to her favorite teacher.

A few weeks before school was to begin, my kids left me with the role of zoo keeper while they went to visit their father for the weekend. When I did the feeding and checking of the crew that Saturday morning, I was absolutely horrified when I saw the tarantula! He wasn’t moving at all and looked thinner and lifeless. I grabbed the closest thing, a Barbie, and gently poked the tarantula with the Barbie’s unnaturally pointed toes. No movement and….. wait a minute, is the spider’s head missing?!  I was totally freaked out and quickly shut the bedroom door as I shuddered with revulsion and dread. What in the world happened? Did one of our cats sneak in and decapitate the spider? How was I going to tell my daughter? She was going to be heartbroken and shamed in front of her classmates and teacher.

A few hours passed while I worked up the nerve to go back in the room. Seeing no change, I decided to carry the entire terrarium out to the garage and call someone for help. This was one of those moments I wanted to forget equality and play the damsel in distress, but there was no knight in shining armor anywhere in sight.  With the phone in my shaking hand, I tentatively peaked into the glass enclosure. The lifeless form was still there but peaking from behind the fake rock structure was another tarantula! I was totally shocked and mystified. Feeling stuck in the twilight zone, I called my lifeline, the science teacher. As I panically relayed the incidents of the last 6 hours, her soft laughter interrupted my anguish. She apologized, “I should have told you that the spider might molt.”

“What, what is molting?!” I exclaimed.

As she explained the molting process, I felt the relief pouring through my brain. Apparently, it’s normal for a tarantula to shed its skin, leaving what looks like a perfect but headless shell. What I thought was a dead spider was only the shell, and the spider itself had been hiding behind the rock, protecting its fresh, tender new skin. My shaking took a few minutes to stop. When my children came home the next day I was confidently prepared to educate them.

Before I could begin my well prepared and rehearsed explanation, my daughter dashed past me to check on her spider. I heard excited cries coming from her room, “Mom, Mom it’s so cool, the spider molted while we were gone!!” My ten-year-old future veterinarian knew all about molting and patiently explained it to me and her sister. So much for me being the all-knowing, competent parent. The hours of anxiety could have been avoided if I had faith in my daughter and simply called her!! I was never as happy as the day we delivered our summertime guest back to his permanent home in the science classroom! If you’re one of the special families hosting the classroom pet for the summer, I wish for you a much less eventful experience but most of all- just keep the pet alive until fall!

Categories: Single Stepping