Excerpted from the Travelologies of Harris Proctor
The creepiest room in the world is a warehouse in the Port of Long Beach filled with roughly 10,000 tarantulas. There are so many of them in that space you can actually smell them. Smell spiders. The aroma is a combination of roasted walnuts, cut grass and baby vomit. And it raises the hair on your neck the instant it hits your nostrils. Before you even see one of them, you smell them all, and you want to run. As we walk to the entrance, I ask my tour guide, Reed, what the smell is.
"What smell?" he says. I describe it for him. "Oh. That's them. When you get so many of them together, you can really smell them. Hear them, too."
When he opens the door, I hear a faint rustling. It reminds me of kids from my parochial school filing down the hallway in silence, headed to an assembly or a mass. The soft, persistent rushing of corduroy pants echoing through the brick chasm of a Catholic elementary school. Same sound.
I find myself about to enter a giant room full of thousands of spiders because my friend and mentor, Karl Jabbar, decided to purchase a peacock menagerie. In talking out the practicality of a peacock menagerie with a super-morbidly obese man who is house-bound in Manhattan, I discovered a strange new world: exotic pet ownership. Growing up I had a dog, two cats, 10-12 fish and a couple of newts that ran away after being featured in show and tell by a younger version of me wearing corduroy pants. Never had a peacock.
I have vivid memories of visiting the pet shop at the local mall when I was a small child and seeing the puppies and kittens, goldfish and turtles. There was a small glass enclosed room with parakeets and a terrarium full of hamsters. Every once in a while they would have something like a chameleon. My parents couldn't go shopping without one whip-around the store that doubled as a lousy zoo. We never bought anything there. The employees must have hated children. When the bigger mall opened, it brought with it a bigger pet shop. This one had animals we kids never considered as pets. Ferrets and snakes, tiny sharks and a little octopus, alligators and pot-bellied pigs. Hissing Cockroaches. Scorpions. Tarantulas.
As we enter the warehouse and Reed turns on the lights, I remember seeing those tiny plastic boxes with big, hairy spiders in them when I was young. Now I am standing in a room with aisles of metal shelves, row after row, packed with various sized plastic boxes each containing a big, hairy spider. Some are really hairy. Some are really huge.
"We try to inspect at least 30 an hour," Reed says. "That's the target to keep the pace, keep the chain moving. These guys here are the new arrivals. They've been here for a couple days now. The other end are the ones ready to go. On their way to pet shops and private collections." I'm barely listening as I slowly walk down the aisle, looking over the creatures. Some are curled up in corners, some are hanging from the wall of their cell. They don't move much. The sitting ones shift their legs a bit. My peripheral vision is filled with the slight shifting of spider legs. It's like the undulating surface of a dark lake.
Why is all this necessary?
"We want to ensure that no dangerous elements are released into the country," Reed says. I ask him to elaborate. He struggles for the words and I see him resigned to brutal honesty. "We are looking for Cheebers."
What is a Cheeber, you ask? A spider that grows so enormous, if most people knew it existed there would be constant screaming in the world.
Exotic pets are nothing new. Kings and Queens have been given foreign animals as gifts throughout the whole of recorded history. King Pakusheq of Sumeria is recorded as having received a pair of long-pawed mountain bears as a wedding present from a royal family in Anatolia. The 2,000-year-old cuneiform texts record that the animals died very quickly, most likely from disease or heat-stroke. Seems taking animals from their natural habitat has proven disastrous since at least the invention of writing. Pakusheq blamed the Anatolians and sent a war party out to avenge the bears. The species is now extinct, perhaps from being included in too many wedding presents.
The Romans were voracious animal collectors. An entire economy of animal trapping blossomed on the fringes of the empire for centuries. While some animals were preserved in the gardens of the aristocratic few, most were used in games for the amusement of all. Often they would throw large beasts into the coliseum just to see what would happen. Herponious recounts an episode when the Romans put a giraffe in the ring with two bull elephants. The elephants gored each other to death, so the giraffe was declared the victor. He was given a modest triumph through the streets of the city, straight to the imperial palace where he was roasted and served to the court. Smelled like victory, and tasted like chicken.
The rich and powerful have never stopped transplanting animals. Few have had the orangutan enclosure that Emperor Hsi-Chiu Chou had during China's Hung Dynasty- he used it to execute suspected enemies and to gamble on the proceedings. It was during America's Gilded Age that things started to get out of control. At one point, Newport, Rhode Island was home to forty zebras and six elephants. When a hippopotamus went berserk in the small resort town of Rhodes, New York, then-president Teddy Roosevelt took matters into his own hands. He killed the hippo while it swam in Lake Wahappa and then demanded passage of the Strange Fauna Act of 1902. Thus began the first federal regulation on the import of wild animals. Other bills soon followed.
After World War II, the booming U.S. economy saw a new industry arise: roadside attractions. Vacationing families needed something more enticing than giant twine balls and animals usually did the trick. Most of the black-bear-riding-a-unicycle types of shows were harmless. Some were catastrophic. A crocodile in Northern California ate its handler. It was used as the basis for Mangled, a film which has achieved cult status thanks to its ludicrous romantic sub-plot, wooden acting and surprisingly graphic (by 1950's standards) climax. There were several large cat escapes. When people are mauled in a tent on the side of a state road today, it's pretty big news. Perhaps in the shadow of Hiroshima it seemed like small potatoes. After the Joliet Snake Panic, the Eisenhower administration got serious about unusual wildlife.
--Reed is a massive human being, well over six feet tall with knuckles like knees. His left eye is cloudy white and he is missing two fingers on his right hand, pinky and ring, which he announced as I went to shake his hand.
--He guides me through the rows of metal shelves, the kind you see along the back walls of people's garages. Just never this many and certainly without a plethora of spiders. He knows all the species on sight. He has worked in this warehouse for eleven years, the better part of his young adulthood. He is married to his unusual job.
--"I never got more than two or three dates when I told girls what I did for a living. They either thought it was bullshit or the grossest thing they ever heard of. I started telling girls I met that I worked at a hardware store. One time a girlfriend stopped by work to see me. When they had never heard of me she bailed." I ask him if there are girls out there who are into spiders. "Yes," he says flatly, "there are."
--I catch sight of a tarantula the size of my hand bolt along the floor and duck under a shelf. I nearly jump into Reed's hairy arms.
--"Been after that one for a week," he says. I ask him how it got out. "They just do. They are pretty smart. Some of them spend their time trying to find the weakness in their enclosure. Some save their energy to jump out when the box needs cleaning. I don't know how he got out. Just looked down the row one day and the box was empty. There are about a half dozen running around." He pulls out a pocket flashlight and shines it about fifteen feet up. A black one hangs motionless on the wall. "She'll come down when she's hungry."
--My skin is crawling. What is the point of this warehouse if the spiders are going to crawl away?
--"They shouldn't get far. Do you remember the causeway with the very fine chain-link tunnel on the way in?" I do. It reminded me of the walkway to Riker's Island Prison. The way it is shown in movies, of course. "All along the exterior is a two-meter strip of industrial adhesive. Like a moat around the warehouse. Anything crawling across would get stuck." And if one hitched a ride on my pant leg or something? Reed laughs. "Happens about once a month, maybe. There's a lemon mist on the way out that freaks them out. That's how this happened." He points to his cloudy eye. I didn't realize it was sitting on my baseball cap. When the mist hit, it ran down the side of my face. I swatted it so hard, the fangs went straight into my eye." I'm not laughing. I recall that tarantula venom isn't supposed to be particularly harmful to humans. "Most of the time, not at all. If a panicked T. Argenti gets you in the eyeball with both barrels, something bad will happen."
--Venom. That's the reason for the warehouse.
.... There is more of this story ...