How to Pick Up and Handle Huntsman Spiders
Warning: this is an article about handling biological entities with aggressive capacity. I cannot take responsibility for any injuries and/or their consequences that may result.
I was leafing through the library looking for sources on huntsman spiders when I came across a book titled Australian Spiders, Their Lives and Habits by the Australian Museum’s then Assistant Curator of Insects Keith C. McKeown. I found the huntsman chapter and started flipping over it, and was almost knocked off my feet by a certain comment. After noting how the more adventurous of the spiders like to enter human premises, he elaborates one form of the unfortunate common outcome:
Their appearance within doors is almost invariably the signal for a chorus of shrill screams from the womenfolk, and frenzied cries to the man of the house to ‘Come and kill it!’ The majority of them meet with a grisly fate, crushed by the heel of a fiercely wielded shoe or other convenient weapon.
I suppose there is some truth in this, though probably less in today’s social environment. But that quote is just the warm up. He then proceeds to follow up in the next paragraph with the most spectacular and memorable feat of smiling positive sexism I have ever come across:
Perhaps I may save the lives of a few of these unfortunate creatures by assuring the ladies-if it so happens that members of the gentle sex are among readers of this book about such abhorrent objects as spiders-that these curious beasties are harmless in spite of their somewhat sinister appearance. (page 87)
Say What? After reading this for the first time, I quickly thought to check the year in which McKeown got away with the statement. Turned out, not only was Australian Spiders published 1952, it was in fact a second edition of an earlier book, Spider Wonders of Australia published in 1936, in which our statement can be found. He was definitely a product of his times. But perhaps I may spare the dignity of this innocent chauvinist by assuring the ladies-and countless males to boot-that at least in the later edition he praises no less than five female researchers and regularly cites their observations of huntsman behavior. He wasn’t that stereotypical.
And again he has a point. There is no good reason to be afraid of huntsman spiders. I say this partly because, with the possible exception of some distinctive brightly colored species, a huntsman bite is not an issue, unless you have an allergy. I also say it because I have never actually experienced one, even after handling God-only-knows how many, sometimes for minutes on end, over the last several years. Unless you do something obviously provocative, like poking it in the face, I really doubt you need to worry. That being said, it does not hurt to respect its boundaries, and I did have a close encounter, a sudden aggressive lunge without the feel of fangs, when I approached it from in front. Perhaps it is advisable to keep initial physical contact to the rear.
In what follows I will explain how to become one with the huntsman, from conquering fear to escorting it outside on the safety of your willing, perhaps even affectionate hand.
On Overcoming Fear
Before going any further with the huntsman, I want to say a bit about fear. It has become increasingly clear to me over the years that fear can mean different things. On one level, it is an effect of the nervous system, increasing heart-rate etc., which we generally can’t control. Nor would it normally be wise to remove it if we could, because it is there for a good reason, to enhance our physical capacity. On another level, it is an agonizing emotional experience, which you would do well to utterly rid from your life. This distinction was particularly hammered home to me the very first time I ever held a huntsman spider willingly in my hand. Before handling it, I was scared. Once I had it though, I made two observations. The first was that every last trace of fear seemed to have vanished from my mind. I was at peace. The second observation: not so for my hand, which looked like it was saying “getitoffgetitoffgetitoffgetitoff!!!!!!” It was shaking so badly I let the spider go quickly in case my hand was making it really nervous. Several years and dozens and dozens of huntsmans later, I still experience physiological symptoms (I’ll even still jump if one moves too quickly and gets me off guard). These symptoms are part of the game for me, and they do not seriously interfere (or perhaps, interfear). The first time will probably be the worst, and it might be wise to keep your spider hand resting on the table or something just in case you might shake your little friend into a panic, until you have more confidence.
But the most important thing is that you don’t panic, and that’s where the emotional side comes in. In order to handle huntsmans without freaking out, you have to desensitize yourself. The first step is not to exaggerate the level of danger. At worst, there have been reports, apparently not confirmed by evidence, of nausea from the bites of the genus neosparassus an example of which is the distinctively colored badge spider (I recommend the wikipedia article for details). Unless you happen to be allergic or something a huntsman bite is not serious business and in my experience a piece of cake to avoid.
If I can convince you not to worry about getting bitten, then you are ready for the second step: overcoming irrational fear. This means you should be able to go right for it, but your mind is serving as an obstacle. The key is progressive levels of exposure (in fact a classic behaviorist form of therapy). First make sure you are comfortable being near it. My advice is to watch it closely, observe it, note its features. Observe and study its behavior, perhaps even try to put yourself in its shoes, so to speak. Learn to see it as another creature just trying to get by, like yourself. See it in terms of its objective form and nature. Get close enough to count its eyes. You should find that if you can take an interest in its structure and appearance, this will keep the ‘spider-alert’ mentality at bay.
Then comes an important breakthrough: first controlled physical contact. I remember my first time distinctively. I was trying to transfer it from a door to my hand, and looking back it was very ideal that the spider rested just a leg or two on my hand for a moment before climbing completely on board. Once you have a single spider leg on you, it is only a matter of degree as the others latch on as well, one by one. Before you know it, you have a passenger! But there is a problem: the huntsman is not always so casual, and a sudden dash might just be enough to put you off! The first thing you should do is force yourself to touch one, even if it’s just a single nudge at the hind legs. The good news is that I cannot recall an occasion when a huntsman has responded to a hind leg jerk by turning around to confront my finger. The best it will do is nothing, the worst is shoot away, away from your hand! If you are a beginner, you should try and avoid this by approaching one when it is nice and lazy. I’ll go into this later when explaining how to get it on your hand.
Once you can touch a huntsman, it shouldn’t be too hard to take to the next level and board one on your hand, let it explore the surface of your forearms. Eventually, you might not even mind it climbing up the back of your neck and ultimately down your face (I would keep it away from those ears though if I were you!) But before you go spider hunting, some more points about the fear factor.
I mentioned that they can move quickly. The Huntsman is indeed a very capable spider and it is hard not to get a bit startled when one makes a dash for it. Another significant factor, however experienced you are, is size. The bigger the spider, the more intimidating it will be. You will need to gather a bit more guts if you’re going for one the size of your hand, though once the two of you are properly acquainted, it should not make much of a difference. Quicker is harder, and bigger is harder. Well, guess what. Although larger huntsmans in my experience do tend to be less hasty (perhaps because of age or maturity I imagine) the larger they are, the faster they ought to be able to move with their legs, and I can confirm this. One night I found on a tree what might have been one of the biggest huntsmans I have ever seen to this day. With some hesitation I went for the leg. The moment we touched, it shot off like a bullet. In an instant it was gone, having moved like lightening beneath the bark. Needless to say I don’t imagine I’ll be taking one of those home one day, for more reasons than one!
A related point is that certain huntsmans happen to give off worse vibes than others. There are some huntsmans I have looked at and said to myself ‘I do not like the look of that thing.’ So I left them be. I don’t know if it’s just continuing irrational fear or if there is something more to it. It seems wise to remember that just because you have overcome a fear of dogs, does not mean you’re going to go up and pat a staring doberman!
And finally, other spiders. For me this is not so much about fear but merely being wise to the unfamiliar. While I feel I have mastered the huntsman, I have never extended my range to any other sort of spider. Although I could probably handle other spiders without fear, I would not have the confidence and trust that I have with the huntsman. While spiders in general don’t bother me, I am too cautious to start mucking around with them, not having the experience to know I won’t get bitten, or the knowledge of how serious it would be if I do. Though I love and admire spiders of all sorts, I only get really personal with the tried and true. This brings me to the first practical point beyond the fear problem:
How Do You Know It’s a Huntsman?
If you are reading this article, chances are you know this much: huntsman spiders are generally big, sometimes disconcertingly so, and they are not black like many of the spiders we see. They are more in the grey/brown sort of range. They are somewhat tarantula-like, though generally more plain. Of course, just because a spider is very large, and not black, does not make it a huntsman (or a tarantula). It could, for example, be a wolf spider. How do you be sure? Luckily, huntsman spiders have a feature that makes them stand out like diamonds on the beach. It has to do with the legs, and most prominently in the front-most pair. In the majority of spiders, the front legs take one of two orientations. First, they simply point straight forward like the barrels of a double shotgun. Second, they start this way coming out of the body but then curve outward toward the feet roughly forming a ‘Y’ shape. But with the huntsman, the front legs come out nice and wide, and then curve inward like the pincers of a crab. Thus it is sometimes called the ‘giant crab spider’. So if the front legs of a large brownish-greyish spider look like they could be hugging or grappling something invisible, rather than trying to jack it open, you can bet it is a huntsman. Just Google some pictures and you’ll see what I mean.
There is another thing worth mentioning. If you are close enough to check, the huntsman has two sets of four eyes each. One set faces straight forward and is tightly packed, the other lies on top facing upward, more spaced out, and somewhat divergent in direction. This contrasts starkly with the wolf spider, which possesses a large pair of owl-like binoculars and two much smaller pairs running backward across the top of the head/body (the eyes and legs of spiders come out of the same major segment, the cephalothorax).
How Does the Huntsman Respond? Responsiveness, Temperament and Predictability
We are almost ready to go hunting. The one remaining thing to do is to explain the general behavior of a huntsman in order to find the right strategy. The particular aspect of its behavior that concerns us is its movement, how fast, how reactive, and how predictable. In these terms, a huntsman’s behavior can vary quite a bit. At one extreme, it will act like it’s running for its life. At the other, it won’t move at all, even if you jab it repeatedly in the leg. Sometimes it will move at a nice, casual pace, and this is what you want. Sometimes you will see it shifting up its gears, from strolling to almost dashing. Sometimes it will jump. And after years of experience, they will still surprise you with unexpected changes of apparent temperament. Most unhelpfully, they can get very jumpy, reacting to sudden movement, half running and half pouncing to get away from the unfamiliar. So before attempting to interfere with a huntsman, you must be aware of these different behavioral ‘moods’ so to speak. This way you can quickly assess, say, whether it is the right time to try and transfer it to your hand or whether you should give it a few minutes. You can also potentially avoid underestimating its abilities. And in theory, it may even prevent a bite. The more erratic and frantic the huntsman is, the more aggressive you in turn will have to be just to stop it from getting away. By ‘aggressive’ I mean thinking and acting fast, responding as quickly as it does, not compromising or chickening out, not letting it win. I can be very aggressive with huntsmans when they opt to make things difficult for me, and have pushed them to the edge without a scratch. I have yet to learn if this is unsafe when done properly. I never cross the line with them. I never get reckless and I stick to the dos and don’ts. They have never let me down, but for all I know they might, so unless you are confident and have reason to collect one on the spot, say you are trying to save it from the cat, it is probably best not to antagonize it too much if you can avoid it.
How to Approach It
So whenever I find a huntsman, the first thing I like to do, if I can, is get it moving so I can see how it is likely to respond to me. The easiest way to do this is a slight jab at the hind legs. If it immediately shoots off, you might have to practice some patience. If it refuses to budge, you might have considerable difficulty persuading it to board your hand. This brings us to a particular reason that it is better to give the huntsman a head start. In any good martial art, it is common sense that whoever throws the first strike is at an immediate disadvantage. Effective defense is waiting for the opponent to act, and then responding appropriately. The right reaction is vastly superior to a spontaneous action with little to exploit.
A huntsman is a particularly good opponent in this respect, because if it simply stands its ground there is very little you can do without bringing any harm to it. But once it is moving, it is giving you the information you need to decide your next move. I have not yet stated it, but it should be obvious by now if it wasn’t at the beginning that we are not talking about literally ‘picking up’ a huntsman as one picks up a piece of paper. The huntsman must, at minimum, actively and willingly at least put a leg on you. Until it does, your hands alone will prove useless, and some gentle provocation is in order to try and earn its cooperation. In doing this, the number one rule is NEVER start by testing its boundaries from the front. Always start with the back. If you are feeling a bit nervous, as I recently did with an impressively sized monster I saw out of the blue on my bedroom wall, you don’t even need to touch it. A decent thump on the wall nearby should get it going.
So what do you do if the spider misbehaves? If it is too fast you must wear it down, if it is too slow you must wake it up. In the latter case all I can say is patience and persistence, even when it’s like trying to get a teenager out of bed. Don’t hurt it, and again keep clear of the front. If it’s just lodged there, and you keep working at its hind-legs, you might first manage to move one of those legs a few millimeters. Try successfully moving one leg at a time until it finally gets off its arse. In this scenario however, you might want to be prepared to deal with a huntsman refusing to move off from your hand. This can happen sometimes, and on one occasion the solution for me was a carefully performed spiderectomy with a stick, 3, 2, 1, you get the idea!
What if it just runs like hell instead? There is another neat trick I really learned to appreciate from the same biggy in my room that I mentioned above. Just let it run! Until you actually have a huntsman in your clutches the biggest problem is keeping it from getting it away. Once a huntsman disappears from accessible sight and reach, there is a reasonable chance you’ll never see it again. Not only are they masters of hide and seek, but they can manage themselves in spaces that might not even look possible. Limiting its choice of avenues is key to getting it off its preferred non-human surface, and you can also use this tactic to chase it around in a controlled environment until it’s finally brought down to a more manageable pace.
How to Catch It
When you try to transfer a huntsman from its present surface to another, namely you, it has three very natural responses that make the task difficult. First, it will almost invariably try to evade you. The average huntsman does not like the idea of being on a human hand any more than the average human likes that same idea! Often when faced with a limb, it will climb on just to climb back off the other side and keep moving. Or it might be so freaked out it will only climb over as a last resort, moving as quickly as possible across that strange surface you are presenting. The second behavior, most obvious when you have one on the wall, is an equally reflexive drive to climb upward. Remember that their natural habitat is in trees, so that in the event of a threat, heading up to higher ground seems like a fairly sensible default response. So if you disturb one on the wall, there is a good chance it will aim straight for the ceiling, out of your reach if your own response is not as swift. The third response, which I have already touched on, is to look for a nook or cranny to disappear in, comparable to the loose bark that keeps them concealed in those trees. Be mindful of these possibilities when preparing to start the chase: your environment can be your ally or the spider’s, depending partly on luck, but partly on who ends up outsmarting or outmaneuvering who.
The most simple and easy place to have a huntsman is on the floor, where its natural advantages are generally not too effective. You want to keep it that way. Table legs, spaces beneath doors, piles of cloths and other debris are all good news for a huntsman. Let it escape from an open space with nothing to work with, and you’ve given it its break. So until it is on you, keep it where it is easiest to control. This is a simple matter of using your hands, limbs and body as barriers, and using its own efforts to escape in order to herd it around. That wall might look pretty promising to it, until your open hand has landed in the way. It tries to move around it, but your hand moves as well, so it eventually turns around and looks for some other way to avoid being a sitting duck. Alternatively, it might take on the hand, climb on, and run off just as quickly, then straight for the wall. This is an opportunity to bring it off the ground. But if it wants absolutely nothing to do with you, then there is a simple solution. Stand on your knees before it, and cup your hands and forearms onto the ground with your hands just behind it, forming a semicircular wall around it. It is now cornered, and can only move in your direction. From this vantage point you can now proceed to shrink the ground beneath its feet. Eventually, you can have it trapped within boundaries formed by your hands. There is a trick to doing this without it slipping through some gap you have neglected. Or it may venture somewhere where you can feel it but can’t see it. The best thing to do is have your hands flat on the ground, palms down, with both thumbs and fingers touching, forming a diamond shape in which the spider is caught. Finally it has no choice. It has to take its chances on your bare flesh. It has run out of tricks to avoid confrontation. If it takes too long to make the move, give it a polite nudge to the back legs.
If it is on the wall, your first concern will be to prevent it from ascending beyond your reach. So block that avenue off. The hands and forearms barrier just described is particularly easy on a wall, so just use that. It will either try to jump the barrier to proceed toward heaven, or it will go down, exactly what you want. So a standard approach to a huntsman on the wall would be 1, create a dead end above it with a forearm or so, before 2, giving it a jab from behind to get it moving within your chosen confines. If it is on the ceiling, do whatever you can to get it off the ceiling! I can’t think of anything else worth trying while it is up there.
Whatever surface the huntsman has been removed from, exactly in what manner it ends up on your hand is a matter of luck and skill. If you are very fortunate, the huntsman might just climb onto your hand and stop. More often, it will still be moving as you lift your hand away from the ground. Sometimes it will only climb half way aboard requiring some gentle prodding to get the rest of it up. A particularly aggressive move, especially valuable if you are taking it down from a more difficult surface like a curtain or bed post, is to use that one foothold of the spider to wrench it off its surface and bring the rest of it to your hand. With a leg or two on your thumb knuckle for example, just rotate the rest of your hand toward it. After a real tango with a huntsman you might even end up catching it in mid-air, probably because one hand was ready when the spider ran off the other. If you have the dexterity to move quickly while still respecting the fragility of the creature, you’ll be surprised what you can get away with in the midst of a frantic chase. Not only have I never been bitten, I’m also glad to say I have never accidentally squashed or blatantly maimed one while trying to obtain it, even when virtually engaging it in jujitsu.
Regardless of how you have gotten the spider on your hand, your immediate task is now to avoid instantly loosing it again. You are now in treadmill mode. You simply cannot expect the spider to stop for you. Instead, you have to move for it. Chances are, it will head straight for the edge of your hand, and if there is nothing there, it will probably dislodge. That is where your other hand comes in: it should be there ready to collect it. Now this will be your spider hand. Repeat the process, and you are effectively functioning as a treadmill for the spider. It can run as far as it likes, but never makes any progress. The real tricky thing is that when your spider is collected while running you have to start this immediately, so that it instantly switches from running along the ground etc. to running on your alternating hands without a transition gap!
When a huntsman is on your hand, it will almost always try to get off again. There are three particular ways it can do this. The most straightforward is it can just run off the edge and drop, what your treadmill is most likely preventing. Other times, it will literally jump. They are quite good at that. This is really hard to counter and the point where you might consider letting it expend a bit more energy before going for it again. A third option for getting off is a really cool trick, where the spider jumps off, but not before anchoring a thread on your hand so it can lower itself down in a James Bond-like getaway. However, if it doesn’t try and dislodge, then there is another predictable recourse. It will resort to the climb-up reflex, only this time the surface is you. So it will climb up your arm, then probably around the back to your neck, then quite possibly up the neck, and then across the top of your head and down your face. I recommend experiencing this, but the point is that once we can keep the huntsman consistently above ground, despite its efforts to rattle itself away somehow, the question becomes, what now?
How to Manage the Huntsman When It Is on You
Whenever you have a huntsman on you, there is always a chance that it will make its way off again. If you are able to keep it from doing so, chances are it’s not too agitated. Ideally it should already be casually strolling along on your hands. Eventually, it should stop altogether and remain nice and still on the palm of your hand. So if it is your intention to escort the creature to a nice tree somewhere then now is the time. Of course, it might start moving again, so keep ever prepared for an attempted escape. If you end up handling a huntsman for long enough, be warned that you may end up experiencing a strange and rather unpleasant sensation at the feel of its legs, as though it is starting to react. I have not looked into this, although I know that tarantulas are capable of emitting noxious particles from its underside, causing a rash for example. I don’t suspect the huntsman is dangerous in this regard, barring the usual possibility of allergic reaction. But the feeling is such that I have never let it stick around to find out. If you like you can let it travel elsewhere on your body. At any rate, it is probably more fun for both of you to let it walk along your forearms, when it goes too far, don’t worry. It is pretty easy to stop it in its tracks by caging your other hand around it so that it climbs on. Now it’s in your hand, ready to climb up your other forearm!
Unfortunately, the hands and forearms are just about the extent of where the spider can venture without easily escaping control. I would love to be able to walk about the sunny campus with a huntsman perched on my shoulder. But in reality, it will more likely climb down behind. Assuming you are wearing a shirt, this leads to an annoying situation wherein you have lost track. It could be on your back near the back of your neck ready to climb, or it could have gone all the way down to your kneecaps or beyond. It could even be happily making its way into the bushes as you stand there trying to find it. Don’t get me wrong. Letting it explore can be fun and rewarding, but it can easily become a nuisance, possibly ending with you returning to your other activities knowing that you may or may not still have a large spider on you. That can be a disadvantage in some situations. Finally the head. I like having a huntsman on my face, but I sometimes wonder if I’m not bothered enough by the possibilities given the animal’s liking for entering tight openings. Think about this before letting it anywhere near your ears! Otherwise, try it out.
Letting It Go
When, where and how? When is a matter of appreciating its need for time out. When bringing a huntsman back to my room, I like to put it up on the curtain and leave it alone for the rest of the afternoon etc., especially if I have already given it enough of a hard time in the process of obtaining it. So don’t spend hours on end screwing around with one. This may really upset it, and perhaps even get you bitten for all I know. Where is not that different an issue. I stopped keeping them in my room after observing that they tended to end up dead. The main justification for picking one up, so far as consideration goes, is to prevent some other idiot from discovering it, and likely killing it. I’ll bring it back if I need to, perhaps giving it a night’s lodge before dropping it off at a peaceful venue the next day. You might also want to ask yourself if you have a bias toward this particular creature’s well-being. I personally don’t go out of my way for it, because I see nothing wrong with rather acting in favor of that hungry looking magpie. How is simply a matter of letting it walk from your hand to another surface, and providing the usual encouragement if necessary. To recapitulate, it might refuse to move altogether, somewhat violating your right not to have a spider on your hand if you don’t want one. Use a stick. I’ll leave the particulars up to you.