By evening at Carlsbad Caverns, people gather about the outdoor amphitheater before the cave's natural entrance, to witness the nightly mass exodus of Brazilian free-tailed bats. When conditions are right, a spiraling funnel cloud containing hundreds of thousands of bats emerges from out of the cave, and rises high into the purple and orange sunset sky. I have not yet witnessed the “bat tornado” in its full glory; bat flights this year have, thus far, been on a smaller scale; some have included a thin but steady stream of the flying mammals. (We do not know the reason for the smaller number of bats, but drought could be a factor.)
At the outdoor amphitheater, some people (especially children) are often distracted by another denizen of the desert. A brown hairy beast, gigantic—for a spider. Tarantulas commonly pass through the theater, or stop for a rest from their evening prowl. Male tarantulas are especially common, as they make their walkabout in search of a mate. Their partnership will be brief. After mating, the male must flee from the hungry female.
I have, a few times, joined the tourists and pointed my camera at the great spiders. I followed one for a good walk, in search of a better photo. And then I found myself, and the tarantula, right outside the door of the men's restroom. I thought this a potentially dangerous spot for the arachnid. A man's boot might squash the poor beast, accidentally or on purpose. And so I pondered how to relocate the spider. When I was ten years old, I acquired a Chilean rose tarantula, whom I named Espigah, for a pet. I sometimes “held her” by allowing her to crawl on my hand. Luckily, I decided not to attempt the same technique in this setting. Instead, I tried sliding my boot next to the tarantula, to encourage him to move. Evidently, the spider thought my intentions were hostile, and responded accordingly. He rose up, with several front pairs of legs in the air and fangs on display, the classic tarantula threat posture. I needed a different strategy. I thought that perhaps I could slide a newspaper under the spider and move him without causing disturbance. As I reached the newspaper towards the arachnid, he rose in threat again and struck the paper with his fangs. The bite sent vibrations through the pages to my hand, a safe distance away. I decided to leave the spider be, to fend for himself should the need arise. Perhaps I had discovered a difference between wild and domestic tarantulas. This fellow seemed to be more inclined to defensive reaction than my pet tarantula was. (Although Espigah did once throw a cloud of urticating hairs in response to a girl's scream.)
Understandably, I had started the confrontation, as far as the spider was concerned. These hairy beasts are quite harmless, when left unmolested. (And even if they are provoked to bite, the venom has no serious effects, for most people.) They are a joy to observe, in the desert wanderings, with their smooth coordination of all eight legs, which suggests a slow jazz rhythm.
Like all animals, tarantulas must eat. From time to time, their fangs sink into beetles or crickets or small lizards. In the right circumstances, small mammals are also fair prey. And so I have drawn a tribute to the big spiders, with their skill at predation. On the sand and rocks, in the cool desert night, beneath the light of full moon, the tarantulas thrive. Like the cacti and the bats, the ring tails and the roadrunners, they are an essential part of the desert.