by Dr. Robert Gale Breene III

From Forum Vol. 6, No. 1

Last issue, we talked about Florida's Agricultural Commissioner Bob Crawford's efforts to eradicate harmless animals in that state. Apparently self-proclaimed Tarantula Buster Bob had no science, no logic, and just one reason justifying the decisions leading to the actions taken. He wants to ban tarantulas in Florida, and his only reason is obviously to increase his name recognition and to attempt to gather in more potential voters under his wing.

Richard M. Blauman wrote to him, and Bob made a big mistake - he wrote back. Below are some salient parts of the letter (maroon) with the editor's comments.

You may not be aware that the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) is charged not only with protecting Florida agriculture, but with protecting the native flora and fauna as well. Chapter 581 of the Florida Statutes requires the FDACS to regulate and establish rules for the importation of exotic flora and fauna, and Rule Chapter 5B-57 further defines our regulatory responsibilities.

All this tells us is that this Florida bureaucracy has demanded a piece of the Fed pie in an activity already being done by the USDA and USF&W Service. This is called duplication of effort.

Many Floridians are appalled at the damage already done by the introduction and establishment of exotic plants and animals, which has traumatically impacted the environment in Florida. A number of government agencies are working to control this damage, and where possible, restore the environment to its former condition. Ignoring newly discovered introduced species would be contrary to this effort. Because we do not know what effect they will have on native species does not mean that they will have no effect. In many previous cases, the introduction was innocent and problems were unexpected and unforeseen.

This statement confirms bureaucratic duplication of effort. I am also appalled. Many species of animals and plants are terribly damaging to the native flora and fauna. Those species are oranges. Tarantulas are apples. Label this paragraph as an attempt to toss out some red herrings. We weren't misled by any of them.

You are correct that tarantulas are native to the United States west of the Mississippi River. They are an accepted and integral part of the fauna of that region. In Florida, they are not a natural part of the fauna, and neither environmentalists nor much of the general public wish to see them become established. They could, potentially, impact the native fauna. In regard to the wolf spiders, there are several threatened species and two endangered species of wolf spiders in the State, most of which are burrowing species. Since the Mexican redrump tarantula is also a burrowing species and appears to like sandy habitats where these wolf spiders are found, it is a potential threat both as a predator and as a competitor for habitat. Actually, one of the endangered species has prevented development from taking place where it occurs.

Are you talking about the wolf spider genus Hogna, which does not burrow, or the Geolycosa, which does? I have it from good sources there is no evidence for endangered status for any Florida wolf spider, but that doesn't mean they aren't. Thirty tarantulas would not have made a dent in any scenario. If you're serious about endangered spider species, work on habitat destruction and overuse of insecticides. Or failing this, at least some potential factor that may impact them significantly, even if you have to really stretch for it.

Since the initial report on the Mexican redrump tarantula, further evidence was collected which indicated a single specimen was deformed more likely as a result of injury rather than from inbreeding. The extent of the population, which is now considerably more than the dozen originally reported, makes it less likely than at first thought that a single female was the founder. This means that inbreeding will probably not cause the demise of the population.

I'm glad you know more about this subject than any other person on the planet. Many arachnologists are vitally interested in finding out whether you can establish a healthy, long term population from a single female. Too bad your statements don't help any, since they are at best wild speculation devoid of scientific foundation.

There have been instances of problems to both livestock and humans from tarantulas. As you probably know, many tarantulas have urticating hairs which they use defensively. Evidence has implicated these hairs as causing foot sores to both cattle and horses in Mexico. In humans, severe eye damage has been reported from these hairs penetrating the eyeball, respiratory problems can be caused by inhaling the hairs, and the itching and rash caused by hairs burrowing into the skin are well-known. Furthermore, severe cases of envenomation from bites by the tarantula genus Poecilotheria have been reported recently on the Internet, and other genera are known to feed on small vertebrates and have relatively potent venom as well. So to say that all tarantulas are harmless is not entirely accurate.

If you bothered to read Tarantulas of Texas etc., you would have seen we've documented all cases of urticating hair medical problems that could be found. This event is very rare, and if someone is sensitive to it, Old World tarantulas are available without the hair. Another alternative is the Avicularia, which you banned, that has type II urticating hair. This hair drops to the ground if separated from the body and does not become airborne. It must be pressed into the victim by the spider. But good point, we should constantly warn people not to press Avicularia individuals onto their open eyes. Thanks for the heads up. Makes about as much sense as any other of your statements.

Mexico? You bet. In Mexico, they also believe that if you touch a Brachypelma individual, then touch your eyes, you'll go blind. They have an incredible number of superstitions with no reality attached down there, including the balderdash about horse fetlocks.

With the Poecilotheria, for every anecdotal case you may hear (about that a person has had a problem with its bite), you can find as many as you want that did not have a problem with its bite. Unlike Brachypelma, Poecilotheria may actually be endangered in their native India and Sri Lanka, perhaps critically. The second I hear there may be an exotic population of them loose in Florida, I'd drop everything and shoot down there to collect them out. This may help their future existence, since it may be likely that the only place they will be found before long is in captivity. The only problem with this; there'd probably be a hundred other people trying to beat me to where they were last spotted. This is what you should have done with the Mexican redrumps you killed off, instead of covering up the location. But alas, you wanted the publicity.

The ban on pinktoe tarantulas, genus Avicularia, was instituted because these spiders were known to occur and proliferate on buildings in tropical areas. They make large, sac-like, silken nests several inches in length. People who appreciate the esthetic qualities of these spiders are undoubtedly in the minority, and it would be unfair to the general populace to condone the establishment of these spiders in areas where they could survive and become a nuisance. This likely would include all of South Florida, especially the Florida Keys, which rarely are subject to freezing.

Who needs a minority of voters? Is that what you said? Many spider species already in Florida proliferate on buildings and spin lots of web. The people who don't appreciate this generally use water hoses or brooms to take care of the problem. They don't ban the genera involved.

If Avicularia did become established on someone's house, the homeowner could hold a bidding war to see what tarantula collector will pay them the most for the privilege of removing them. All that banning Avicularia did was reduce the possibility a Florida homeowner could clean up on a small gold mine of precious spiders found on their premises. I do not for a second believe banning any tarantula had anything at all to do with the good of the people of Florida in any way. It did, however, have everything to do with benefiting the perpetrators instigating the ban laws.

Whether or not the discovery of the Mexican redrump tarantula causes changes in Florida regulations concerning the importation, sale, and possession of tarantulas is a subject on (sic) ongoing discussions. It seems clear that the potential for establishment by tarantula species is greater than was originally thought. At the very least, enhancement of our present risk assessment strategies will be needed, hopefully with constructive input from the pet industry.
Please know that it is not the intent of the FDACS to be unduly restrictive in its regulating policies, but rather to use risk assessment to achieve a balanced well justified approach. Again, thank you for sharing your views with me.

There is no balance. There is no justification to ban any tarantula. The people obviously pushing for the eventual ban of all tarantulas are politicians who want more votes, or more power, or both.

How do they get more votes or power doing this?

They figure that most voters are arachnophobics who think spiders are yucky, and anything politicians can do to prevent more yuckies is a good thing that can benefit the politician. That is virtually all there is to this entire foul-smelling deal.

I was notified of the event well before the Mexican redrump fiasco hit the fan. I told them I could get people down there to remove them quietly. No need to take it any further or to kill any of them. They collected some, poured insecticide down every hole they could find (some which were doubtless Geolycosa holes), then decided to use the incident to get cheap and widespread media coverage to benefit themselves. They gambled that the pro-spider crowd was too small, too weak to hassle them much.

By themselves, arachnid sympathizers in Florida probably are a small group, no larger than a few thousand. Add to this group the biologists, ecologists, other concerned scientists, and herp people, and you may begin to realize you may have hurt yourself after all. Feral house cats and dogs can be bad problems to native wildlife, as I'm sure you know. Feral house cats have devastated bird populations on many Pacific Islands, to name one example. I'll bet the Florida Department of Agriculture knows a lot better than to mess with kittens and puppies. Cat and dog owners likely do represent a majority of Florida voters. Is there something inconsistent here?

If you had a real problem coming your way, nobody could fault you for whatever drastic action you took to prevent it from spreading. Since you haven't come up with one, let me. If an exotic aphid species that carried a virus that destroyed the root stock of Florida citrus trees was headed your way, or had been found in an area as small and as few in number as the Mexican redrumps were, drastic action would be required. The actions might not be popular, but they would need to be taken.

The aphids are oranges.
Tarantulas are apples.
You never had a leg to stand on.
The ATS requests immediate removal of all laws restricting the ownership of any tarantula genus or species in Florida.
If you have some items you would like to discuss with Tarantula Buster Bob, his address again is:
Bob Crawford
Department of Agriculture
Capitol Plaza, Level 10
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0810

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