Not 'itsy bitsy spiders': Desire to conquer arachnophobia leads to tarantula ownership

April Helms
Kent Weeklies
Daenerys is a female Venezuelan Suntiger Tarantula (psalmopoeus irminia). Female tarantulas tend to live longer than males, said Dan Pompili, who owns Daenerys, or "Dany," as well as 29 other tarantulas.

Dan Pompili's decision to own tarantulas stemmed from an unlikely source: his arachnophobia. 

"I would have nightmares that would wake me up in a cold sweat," said the Youngstown resident. "If I saw any kind of spider, that was it. I wasn't sleeping that night unless I had captured or killed it."

In an effort to dispel his fear of arachnids, Pompili started researching spiders and joining groups to help him get over his phobia.

"Everyone fears the two big ones, like black widows and brown recluses," Pompili said. "But those generally are not in this area. I was learning about spiders and how not to freak out.

"Then one day on Facebook, I saw a picture that blew my mind. It was a brilliant, blue-colored tarantula. I called it the Kent State tarantula. It was blue, with white and gold. I thought it was gorgeous."

From there, Pompili decided to do more research on tarantulas and owning them.

"I had to sell my wife on the idea, of course," he said. "She wasn't eager, but she wasn't opposed."

Pompili said he got his first two in January 2019. A couple months later, he ordered three more. Today, he has 30.

"When you only have one or two, it gets boring pretty quickly," he said. "Once you set them up and feed them, there's not much else to do. Spiders are generally pretty boring creatures. When you see everyone else's photos in the communities, you think, 'Oh, that one is beautiful, I want one!' Some people have 200 in their collection. I'm holding at 30. I don't have space for more right now. This is manageable."

There are many species of tarantula, with different patterns and behaviors, Pompili said. They can eat a variety of foods, including crickets, mealworms and red roaches. Roaches, he added, are easy to keep. A disadvantage with crickets is "they die quickly and easily, and they smell bad." Superworms are a good food option for the larger tarantulas.

One thing Pompili said he would tell new owners is to avoid heating devices. Not only are they not needed, they can do more harm than good.

"Most chains will try to sell you a heating lamp or a heating pad," he said. "Do not sell or buy a heating lamp or, God forbid, a heating pad, for a tarantula. They don't need the light, and if you put a heating pad under them you will most likely wind up with a baked tarantula. If you are comfortable, they are comfortable is the general rule of thumb."

Tarantulas should have a water dish, but do not use a sponge, Pompili said. 

Some species of tarantula need high spaces because they like to climb. Pompili said that he's seen situations in which a tarantula is kept in too small and humid a space, with nothing to climb on.

"Those coming in with the idea of owning a tarantula think, 'Oh, this is how you keep this species,' " he said. "They buy the spider, which will be traumatized, and the owner won't know, and it will be dead in a week."

Pompili said his third tarantula, a Hungarian curly hair, was purchased from a pet store. It had been in a glass enclosure with no dirt, an empty water dish and "just a strip of green carpeting."

"It could have gotten its claws caught in the carpeting," Pompili said.

Dan Pompili's tarantulas include Hermione : a female Honduran Curly Hair Tarantula (tlitlocatl albopilosus).

While tarantulas are "really easy to keep," it was critical to know the care needs of the different species, Pompili said. Some types may, indeed, prefer a more humid environment. Others prefer their abodes to be "bone dry." Some like to burrow in the ground.

"Some Asian species, if you don't get enough dirt for them to burrow in, you will have a highly angry and venomous tarantula to deal with," he said. 

There are two categories of tarantula, Pompili said. The New World tarantulas, which generally come from the Americas and the Caribbean, are generally better for those getting into the hobby of owning tarantulas. Curly hair tarantulas, especially, are good for first-time tarantula owners. The New World tarantulas tend to have low venom. 

"It would be like a bee sting," Pompili said of a bite from a New World tarantula. "If Dany stung me, it would feel as if I had capsaicin running through my veins."

"Dany," or Daenerys, is Pompili's Venezuelan Suntiger Tarantula, named for a popular character in the Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin.

Pompili added one thing to watch are the urticating hairs. If these hairs got caught in the skin, it can cause irritation and rash.

However, the Old World tarantulas, which come from Asia, "are faster, and they are more defensive."

"They don't have the urticating hairs, so they don't have any other defense," Pompili said. "You probably won't die. There have only been three deaths reported, and two of those were from secondary causes. But if they bite you, you will feel excruciating pain. "

Those wishing to learn more about tarantulas can visit The Tarantula Collective or Fear Not Tarantulas Inc., both on Facebook, Pompili said. 

Reporter April Helms can be reached at ahelms@thebeaconjournal.com

Manasa Devi is a female Skeleton Leg Tarantula (ephebopus murinus).
Veda: a female Striped Knee Tarantula (aphonopelma seemanni), blue color form, is one of the 30 tarantulas owned by Dan Pompili. These also are more commonly found in a golden brown variety.