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.
The Joliet Snake Panic began in the town of Wyatt, Illinois, twenty miles southwest of Joliet. It was a pristine autumn day, September, 1957. Doug McGonnagil's "Wild Snake Adventure" had just closed for the season, and the proprietor was packing up his inventory for a winter run in Florida. It is unknown how the 26 snakes escaped. McGonnagil was found dead on his property with none of the serpents in sight. Some think he was snakebit. One local legend blames a cow. It is known that within days, the people of Joliet were seeing snakes everywhere. Those who had firearms discharged them. Hysteria erupted and mushroomed. Two people were actually bitten by poisonous snakes on the outskirts of town. They both survived. Seven people were killed by stray bullets, fire and one possibly unrelated lynching.
Several lessons could have been taken from the episode. None were. The biggest culprit behind the terror was a 12-foot boa constrictor named Shoop. Shoop wasn't venomous, but the locals were convinced he was longer than a city block and full of poison. There were several venomous snakes loosed on the greater Joliet populace, but they didn't have the length necessary to truly terrify. Most of the snakes were wrangled within a week. A couple were never found, assumed to have slinked their way to the Chicago sewer system to live out their lives as legend. Shoop was found four months later, coiled up in a garage and frozen to death. The risk of venomous animals invading the neighborhoods of decent, hard-working Americans became the stuff of newsreels and political pandering. President Eisenhower quickly signed the Exotic Wildlife Management Act.
The Act and the Agency introduced in the 1950's regulated the import of intrusive species which posed a legitimate threat to the population. There were too many rich and powerful pet owners to ban the trade in exotic creatures entirely. A series of quarantines were established, the majority of the animals going to New Orleans. Zoos and private collections were forced to endure a waiting period while the animals were evaluated. By all accounts the process was an exercise in projecting security. Once in a blue moon the staff would declare some animal a threat and have it destroyed. As the sixties progressed, counter-cultural social trends encouraged the growth of alternative pets. Cats and dogs were for squares. The hippie and feminist movements made the hairy-legged tarantulas far more popular than they had ever been.
Eventually the EWMA quarantines began to outgrow their New Orleans facility. Long Beach and Miami were chosen as replacement sites. Most of the animals were coming from the Pacific Rim, but Africa provided enough wildlife to encourage an east coast location. In the late summer of 1978, the new warehouses began operation just as Hurricane Sheneneh was headed for Louisiana. The animals were evacuated. All except the tarantulas. The agency, short on funding, allegedly instructed the spider wranglers to destroy the animals. Their chief volunteered to do the honors. He disappeared during the hurricane. Hundreds of tarantulas were crawling around the debris-ridden Crescent City.
According to Reed Janisson, a Cheeber made it into the bayou.
"There is no one species of Cheeber," he says. "They are a subfamily. We know of at least four, but there is anecdotal evidence of a dozen or so. Maybe more." While he talks, he slowly pinwheels his arms to allow a nightmarish arachnid crawl along the treadmill of his hands. He tells me this one is the largest tarantula known to the public at large. It is Theraphosa Yasuni, the Ecuadoran Bird-Eater. Fully grown, the creature Reed is holding would have a leg-span of fourteen inches and an abdomen the size of an apple.
Exactly how big does a Cheeber get?
"We don't know exactly. The biggest on record was probably more than three feet, tip to tip. They tried to dope her to measure her, but they killed her. It's understandable from a certain point of view. If you're going to handle a spider the size of a kitchen table, you want to be sure it isn't going to come to. I always wondered why they had to know exactly how big it was. Once a spider dies, the joints shrink immediately, so they never really knew how big she really was. Three feet or so."
That's the biggest on record. I'm terrified to hear what's off the record. Reed rolls his eyes, shrugs, and puts his Ecuadoran friend back in its plastic home.
"You don't know exactly who to trust. The existence of these things was documented in folk tales in rainforest communities. Asia, Africa, the Americas. No one took them seriously. The indigenous people who understood what they were and how to live with them spoke about creatures that were about three or four feet across. But they also said they could get bigger. There is a lot about these animals we don't understand. We don't know what their limit is. We don't know how intelligent they are. We don't know much besides how to spot them."
That is the purpose of this quarantine. The room is hyper-oxygenated. Enough to notice it. I feel like I've had a carafe of espresso. Cheebers look like two dozen other species. Some scientists feel that Cheebers represent a mutation within a broad spectrum of species, that they are made by environmental factors. The single constant- apart from horrifying proportions- is a red star that appears on the spider's underside when it begins its rapid-growth cycle. The star gets brighter and more obvious when the animal is exposed to elevated oxygen levels. Men like Reed spend time flipping tarantulas over to look for a red star.
"They thought it was some kind of communist bio-weapon at first. The red star has always been there though. I read a folk tale from Borneo where the warriors of the village were sent out to find one for a chief's wedding feast. It was believed you gained magical strength and sexual prowess if you ate one. They couldn't find an adult, so they brought back a juvenile- one about the size of the Ecuadoran over there. They knew it from the red star. The chief dug a pit to raise the spider and postponed the wedding. The chief told his bride-to-be to be patient, that he had a great surprise under the bamboo wall covering the pit. It grew quickly, being fed a diet of wild pigs. On the morning of the wedding, the bride couldn't contain her curiosity any longer and she ventured alone to look inside the pit. They found the pit wide open with the woman gone."
That story was recorded by Dutch scholars in the mid-nineteenth century. In time, folklorists assumed that the giant spiders of the rainforest were derived from obscured sightings of the hairy and long-limbed orangutan to produce an imaginary monster. Those in the know understand that the indigenous tribes of Borneo were neither ignorant of their environment nor incapable of keeping an oral history. Those in the know spend most of their time keeping the rest of us out of the know.
"I see it from both sides," says Reed. "People are entitled to the truth. The truth is these creatures are out there. The truth is we are finding more and more of them. Our behavior as humans might be contributing to that growth. On the other hand, people like to panic. If the truth got out the wrong way, I think we would see the wholesale slaughter of spiders in general, not just tarantulas. These animals are critical to ecosystems all over the world. I fear that they would be pushed to extinction in a matter of months. I don't want to see that happen."