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Spider man

by Nicola Macdonald

Ray Hale, organiser of the British Tarantula Society Exhibition, on celebrating the world’s most misunderstood arachnid. 

Sharks, jellyfish, wasps, red ants…some creatures are just seen as life’s villains. But, out of them all, tarantulas perhaps hold a special place in the human psyche.

“People think tarantulas are dangerous. They’re not,” Ray Hale tells EN. “Yes they can bite, yes it does hurt, are you going to die? No.”

Hale, along with his wife Angela, has run the British Tarantula Society (BTS) Exhibition, which takes place each year at Warwickshire Exhibition Centre, for the past 26 years, and before that was a keen tarantula keeper himself.

The exhibition, now coming up to its 33rd edition, started off more than three decades ago as a small event in a garage, with 12 people in attendance.

It grew steadily over the years and now welcomes more than 2,000 visitors and 75 exhibitors from around the world.

“If you look at the society as a cross section our youngest is about five years old and our oldest member is well into their eighties,” says Hale. We get the enthusiasts, who come because they’re interested in the spiders. Then you get the hobbyists. Then you get what we call the “innocent bystanders”, who have seen it or heard about it and thought it looks interesting.

“Last year a 97-year-old woman came because she heard it on the radio, and had to come and see for herself. We made such a fuss of her. We have bouncers on the door and they gave her a cup of tea, sat her down and had their photos taken with her. You can imagine; a tiny old lady surrounded by 12 bouncers!”

The show has a strict no handling policy for the spiders, but the reason is far more to do with the safety of the spiders than the feelings of the visitor.

“We’re more concerned about the welfare of the animal, that’s paramount to us,” explains Hale. “Some of these spiders can fetch in the region of £200-300, and if you drop a tarantula from a height of about three feet onto the floor you will kill it. They’re not like the spiders you get running along the carpet. Tarantulas are different creatures.

“Some tarantulas can live upwards of 25 years, you can kill one in seconds. If you handle your own spider that’s up to you, but at our show we have a non-handling policy.”

The show also features a range of insects – including stick insects and beetles – which can be handled by visitors.

“Way back when we first started, many years ago, we also had reptiles,” adds Hale. “But around when I took over organisation of the show we stopped having reptiles.

“That wasn’t because we don’t like reptiles, it was just that our members are what you would call purists. Spider keepers and reptile keepers tolerate each other but we don’t really mix.”

The show moved to Warwick Exhibition Centre after two years at Ricoh Arena, and Hale says the show has never faced any concerns regarding its subject matter.

“I’ve never had a problem finding a venue,” he says. “At the end of the day venues need to sell their space. We also police ourselves very stringently.

We work very closely with Warwick Exhibition Centre; they are fantastic. I think they were perhaps apprehensive the first year, and thought, ‘my god we’ve got 50,000 tarantulas descending on Warwickshire’. I can understand that, but when we arrived, we were like a military operation. It’s a professionally run show and I think the venue appreciates that.

“And, to answer your next question, we’ve never lost a tarantula. And don’t intend to start now.”

Hale is keen to emphasis that the show, as part of the British Tarantula Society, puts education front and centre.

“You do see a lot of animal cruelty, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “We work very closely with animal organisations. These animals will be kept in captivity whether we are here or not. We’re not the police.

“What we try to say to people is, ‘fine, keep the animal in captivity, but listen to the information we give, hear our advice, and take it if you want. If you want to keep the animal that’s fine, but do the legwork, come to the show. See what we’re all about.

“Don’t condemn when you can’t be bothered to come and look.” EN

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