When I was six years old, I wanted a dog. Like generations of six-year-olds before me, I whined and pleaded and cajoled and attempted juvenile bribery (“I’ll let you play with my Stretch Armstrong whenever you want!”), until my father came up with the diabolical idea to let me have a dog if I would stop sucking my thumb. Considering that this was a habit that nothing had so far convinced me to break, not threats or punishments or soft-voiced reasoning, Dad assumed he would not have to go puppy shopping anytime soon. But, upon being told of this offer, I popped my thumb out of my mouth, wiped it on my shirt, and never put it back in. Two weeks later, we had a lhasa apso.
Now I have my own six-year-old daughter and in the grand tradition, she has started her own campaign for a fuzzy creature to call her own. Only, she doesn’t want a dog, or a cat, or even a marginally cute rodent. My precious pumpkin has her heart set on a tarantula.
Specifically, she wants Brachypelma smithi, also known as the Mexican red-kneed tarantula. According to any one of the several dozen tarantula books that I trip over every day, this particular tarantula is very docile, though I have suspicions that “docile” is a relative term among tarantula enthusiasts. Does “docile” really mean gentle and harmless, or only that it won’t incapacitate me with an agonizing neurotoxin when it leaps onto my face and attempts to suck out my brain through my eyeballs? There’s a fine distinction there.
Clearly, I find the thought of having a large, hairy spider hanging around our house somewhat disturbing, so I have tried to come up with credible objections. Since New World tarantulas (those whose origin is in North or South America) are generally not very venomous, I can’t exercise the “no pets that can kill you” rule. We already have several unused aquariums in storage, so I can’t claim that proper housing would be too expensive. I can’t even rely on the good old gross-out. When I showed my daughter a picture of a tarantula molting, she declared that she would save the exuvia and use them in some tarantula-themed craft projects for school. She made it sound so reasonable, I ended up offering to make them little hats.
My final gambit was when I told her about urticating hairs, the barbed fibers that tarantulas somehow hurl at you when they get peeved and that lodge in your skin, nasal passages, or even your cornea. Depending on where they land and how sensitive you are to them, effects can range from a mild irritation to begging the ER doc to gouge out your eyes with a reflex hammer. I have found that when you really want to get a kid to think twice about something, your best bets are the suggestion of either potential pain or a yucky flavor. To a six-year-old, there is little difference between a hypodermic needle and a mouthful of broccoli; both are equally traumatic and just as likely to cause anticipatory hyperventilation.
But I underestimated my sweet muffin’s desire to have a fanged arachnid to love and cherish. After I explained what a tarantula hair in the cornea would feel like, she merely rolled her eyes and said, as though speaking to, well, a six-year-old, “Mom. Gloves. Goggles. The mask thingy from my doctor kit. No big.” She then asked for a cookie to munch on while she read her new book, “The World’s Most Disgusting Creatures.”
So, now I have only one option: to demand something of her in return for granting her heart’s desire. I’ll tell her that, in order to get her red-kneed pet, she will have to stop being so damn precocious. I don’t think we’ll have to go tarantula shopping anytime soon.