There’s been a lot of publicity in the press this week about the family that found a Brazilian Wandering Spider and her hatching spiderlings in a home delivery of bananas from Waitrose. Here is a typical cutting of the “spider that can kill in two hours” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2798570/family-s-terror-world-s-deadliest-spider-trapped-waitrose-home-delivery-gnaws-leg-esacpe.html
Similar stories about this spider, Guinness World Record holder as the world’s most venomous arachnid, crop up from time to time and remind me of the time, 20 years ago, when I came back from a filming trip in Brazil with 9 female Wandering Spiders in my airline hand baggage, all clinging tightly to their egg sacs – containing in the region of 5000 developing spiderlings.
I was working on a television series about the nightmare creatures of nature and had been sent to Brazil to film three sequences – a reconstruction of an attack by vampire bats on a sleeping child, a report on the attempts to eradicate screw worms ( the gruesome maggots of a blow fly that feed on the living flesh of cattle and, sometimes, humans ), and a reconstruction of an incident in a Sao Paulo barbers shop when a Wandering Spider climbed up the broom handle of the hairdresser and bit him on the hand ( he survived ).
The original ( and now long dead ) spider of the story had been a female clinging to her egg case of offspring, hiding under a refrigerator until rudely disturbed by the sweeping. For the filming we were provided with 9 female spiders, with their egg sacs, by the medical institute that produced the anti venom for Brazil.
The spiders performed as hoped, no one got bitten, and my able camera assistant and animal wrangler Sarah Lawrie and I prepared to move on to Brasilia and the screw worm shoot. It was then that the director took me to one side to ask a favour … Oxford University Faculty of Medicine were extremely interested in doing a study of Brazilian Wandering Spiders and an import licence had been issued to bring our filming subjects back to the UK. The only problem was, although permission had been granted by the medical institute to retain the spiders, there was no official sanction to export them from Brazil.
We’d already transported the spiders by air from Brasilia to Sao Paulo, in one of my hand baggage camera cases, and noticed that in their individual sealed plastic containers they didn’t show up on the airport security scanners. Who was I to deny Oxford University the chance to carry out important medical research, so I agreed to carry them in the same way back to England. The only worrying moment was just after boarding the aircraft, when a stewardess came down the aisle liberally spraying insecticide.
Back home in my village on the edge of the Cotswolds I gave the spiders a temporary home in the airing cabinet in the bathroom and called the contact at Oxford University. “Great” he said, “bring them down to Oxford tomorrow. Oh, and don’t forget the anti venom.” Anti venom? What anti venom? I didn’t have any anti venom!
“I’m sorry, but in that case we won’t be able to take the spiders” he replied. A quick call to the director at the production company. “We have a situation,” I said, “and the spiders’ egg sacs have started opening”.
By now Christmas was fast approaching and I was about to be foster parent to 5000 baby spiders. In my filming studio I constructed a heated, double doored glass safety chamber where the spiderlings could be kept secure. In the unlikely event of any escaping, the winter cold should kill them before they got very far. The image of any loose Wandering Spiders settling into the homes of my neighbours was just too dreadful to contemplate. I bought fruit flies from a local pet shop as food for the spiderlings, but within a week the largest had turned cannibal and just as readily fed on their siblings. By the time the production company found an alternative home for the spiders there were 8 of the 9 females alive, and around 300 chubby spiderlings.
On a cold day just after New Year I took the Wandering Spiders to their new home in the Invertebrate House at London Zoo and breathed a sigh of relief that my village was safe once again.
All photographs Copyright ©Steve Downer