When you walk into Stephanie Volkert’s house, you wouldn’t know you’re never more than ten feet away from several dozen arachnids. Stephanie keeps tarantulas, and is very passionate about them. For this interview, I watched as she fed the majority of her invertebrate pets, and by the end of my trip I even managed to find an appreciation for these arachnids.
Stephanie keeps bugs, in fact going so far as to style herself The Bugmom on social media. Even five minutes into our conversation her passion and enthusiasm for these often vilified creatures is contagious. Her affection for these animals is obvious, when hearing her talk sweetly to them.
“That’s a spider happy dance,” she told me, pointing out the Aphonopelma seemanni, as it turns in circles, a dubia roach caught in its fangs. “It’s making a feeding mat. It’s like making your own place mat every time you have dinner.” In fact, as I watched it seemed impossible not to be impressed by Stephanie’s hobby and her truly unique pets.
To find out more about Stephanie’s seemingly unthinkable passion, read on.
Q: So, The Bugmom- where did you get the name? What’s that about?
A: Basically, I feel kind of maternal towards creatures that can’t advocate for themselves. I created that username years ago on Arachnoboards, and then just stuck with it across all my social media. I’m happy to answer questions people may have, and I try to make my posts and videos educational. I’m also available for local outreach events. I’ve gone into classrooms and youth groups with my animals. Kids love it, because they have this natural curiosity, and I love seeing our future exotic animal keepers.
Q: Why spiders?
A: That’s always what people ask first. They’re kind of perfectly designed, from an evolutionary standpoint. There’s nothing left to improve on. And there’s so many different species that, well, it’s like stamp collecting. You want the ones from foreign countries, the rare ones, the unique ones, but you also value the common ones.
Q: Where did this passion start?
A: I grew up in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. Tarantulas and other arachnids are just part of life there and I didn’t understand why I should be afraid of them. They didn’t want to hurt me. I got my first pet tarantula when I was 15, and have kept them off and on since then. The more I learned about them, the more my passion grew.
Q: How many do you have?
A: I have 45, down from over 100. I downsized recently to make room for larger reptile enclosures.
Q: Are they easy to keep?
A: Super easy. Just about the most maintenance-free pet you can have. One step up from a pet rock, really.
Q: Why do you think these animals are so hated?
A: The media gets it wrong almost every time a spider is mentioned and uses fear to get viewership, plus old wives tales, general ignorance of arachnids, combined with doctors that label every bump or lesion a spider bite when it was probably not a spider at all, but instead an assassin bug or infected scratch. Spider bites are actually very rare, spiders don’t want to waste their venom on something they can’t eat, and biting is the last resort for them. Fun fact! Doctors aren’t even trained in med school to identify a spider bite because there’s actually no clear cut symptoms of one except in cases like a widow bite. It’s almost never the poor, misunderstood brown recluse either.
Q:Are all tarantulas venomous?
A: All spiders are venomous to some extent, but tarantula venom is non-lethal to humans. There’s never been a recorded, medically verified instance of death by a tarantula in a healthy human. There’s been speculation in a handful of cases, all of which were in people that were already severely ill. Spider venom is designed to work on their natural prey, which isn’t humans. We can experience symptoms from envenomation, particularly if the venom is a neurotoxin. There are some species that can cause severe pain, nerve damage, even hallucinations, but death? You’re safe there.
Q: Have you ever been afraid of any of them?
A:No, but I do have a healthy respect for them. If I get bit, I’ve probably done something to stress them to that point. That’s on me.
Q: So it’s safe to say they’re more afraid of us than we are of them?
A: Imagine meeting a creature that’s as tall as Mt. Everest compared to you, and you lack the mental capacity to determine if this giant is friend or foe, nor can you communicate with it. You’d run away, and only as a last resort would you stand your ground and attack. We are big and scary and threatening to a tarantula, even the biggest of them. They’d really just prefer we leave them alone.
Q: What’s your favorite?
A:I have a few favorites, but I can’t pick just one. I love my Euathlus sp. Red because she has a very tolerant personality. I love my A. geniculata because she’s a huge eating machine and takes no crap. She’s big and she knows she’s in charge. I love my P. metallica because she’s this beautiful, vibrant blue and yellow. She’s like a work of art.
Q: Do you have any advice to new keepers, people interested in keeping?
A: Read a ton before deciding on which species you want. Avoid advice from pet stores or their care sheets. There’s a saying we have in the hobby: “Care sheets kills pets.” Seek out the arachnid community. There’s many great forums for information, plus YouTube and Instagram. Understand that some species may only life a couple years, whereas others can live for 30.
Q: What’s the one thing you’d like everyone to know about tarantulas?
A: They probably aren’t what you think they are. They’re not monsters lurking in the shadow, waiting to bite you. They just want to mate, eat, and be left alone.
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