what's your opinion on handling tarantulas?
Oh man, you’re gonna make me open this can of worms?
For Old World species (or Psalmopoeus or Tapinauchenius species) the answer is no, no, no, absolutely not, why would you even want to do that? That’s a great way to needlessly land yourself in a lot of pain (or the hospital) and the hobby in a lot of legal trouble. For quick, flighty, jumping-prone species (probably most arboreals) the answer is also mostly no, simply because you could so easily drop or lose your tarantula.
If you want to even consider handling your tarantula get a species that is good for handling (a slow, calm, terrestrial New World species). Even then you should take precautions, such as carefully observing the tarantula’s mood, gradually getting it used to handling/human contact, not handling too often, and only holding it over a solid surface.
Now, there are people that think even this kind of handling is needlessly risky and without benefits. Those people are absolutely welcome to their opinion (I think this is a decision each keeper must make for themselves), but I would like to address some misinformation that often gets thrown around in this debate.
1) “Tarantulas cannot learn or become accustomed to handling”
As someone with a degree in both psychology and biology this is simply not true. Pretty much any organism that is capable of registering pleasant/unpleasant stimuli and remembering it can learn. There are even studies suggesting that plants can remember and become desensitized to recurring stimuli. Scientists repeated the famous “Pavlov’s dog” experiment with cockroaches and the results were pretty much identical. Although they have very different nervous systems from ours invertebrates can absolutely learn.
Firing up the body’s flight/flight systems takes a lot of energy so if something frightening occurs repeatedly without anything actually bad happening it is in an organism’s best interest to stop reacting fearfully to that stimulus (or at least to dampen the reaction).
When socializing future education tarantulas I’ve watched them go from standing on as few legs as possible the first time they walk on your hand (what I call “tiptoes”) because they don’t like the texture of human skin to crawling over a hand as if it were just another familiar part of their environment. Some tarantulas also seem to show a marked preference for familiar human hands over unfamiliar ones; it’s been proven that hissing roaches can recognize individual humans and will not hiss when someone familiar picks them up (I would love to see a study like this done with tarantulas).
2) “A tarantula always perceives being picked up the same way it perceives being attacked/grabbed by a predator”
If you handle your tarantula correctly (using what I call the “be the ground” technique) then picking it up should not resemble a predator’s attack. There is no tarantula predator on earth that gently scoops the spider up from below. Spiders hate being breathed on and generally dislike being grabbed from above because those stimuli resemble something they would experience when being attacked by a predator (and so trigger their fight/flight alarm systems very strongly).
However scooping from below does not resemble a predator attack (assuming you’re not looming over the tarantula and breathing on them) and once they are in your hands most tarantulas will treat the hand as an inanimate surface not as a predator or even part of a larger animal. They don’t really have the senses or cognitive abilities to think “a giant animal is holding me”. More like “the ground moved and now I am standing on a weird new surface in a different place”.
The reality is that the handling of appropriate species is an enormously useful tool in educating people about tarantulas and dispelling fear. Can you educate people about tarantulas without handling them? Yes. But as someone whose full time job is to care for and educate people about arthropods I can tell you with 100% certainty that it does not have even close to the same effect.
Where I work we have dozens of beautiful, naturalistic enclosures displaying gorgeous rare tarantulas from all over the world. But the thing that gets people excited, wide-eyed, and asking questions is the highly-trained docent handling one of our well-socialized education tarantulas. There is something about seeing a person interact with the tarantula outside of a cage that makes it real for people. They ooh and aww and adults that were shrieking about how much they hate spiders while walking through the facility will say things like “I never realized how pretty they are up close” or “her feet look so dainty and gentle”.
So, while I respect every keeper’s right to decide what their comfort level and policies are when managing their own animals, I work at a facility where we handle some calm, well-socialized tarantulas and I (gently, occasionally, and with lots of precautions) handle one of mine. But it is certainly not something that people should do willy-nilly with any tarantula and without putting a lot of thought into doing it properly.