Swaner EcoCenter hopes to conquer fears with exhibit featuring 100 arachnids
Hunter Klingensmith had a task many would consider unusual or even terrifying after clocking in last Tuesday: helping place dozens of spiders, scorpions and everything in between into 100 terrariums at the Swaner EcoCenter.
As it went on, though, the process came to resemble that of getting a cat into a carrier on the way to the vet. Except, tarantulas don’t shed their fur or give you dirty looks for days afterward.
“We got to see their personalities as we put them in,” Klingensmith, customer service coordinator for the EcoCenter, said. “Which ones were like, ‘I don’t really like this;’ some were like, ‘Oh, OK, back to my home.’”
As spider-themed decorations begin appearing in grocery stores and school hallways for Halloween, visitors can see 100 of the real things (along with scorpions and other species) on display at the EcoCenter each week from Sept. 15 to Dec. 9, Wednesdays through Sundays.
Aaron Cleveland, the exhibit’s designer, said he wants visitors to take home an expanded view of the eight-legged creatures, their place in various cultures and efforts to conserve them.
“My hope is that people come away from this exhibit with a better understanding of these animals and move from a fear perspective to more of a respect for them,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland, a conservationist and vice president of Build 4 Impact, the firm behind the exhibit, said the species often left out of the wildlife protection conversation are those literally underfoot.
“People think of conserving mega vertebrates like gorillas and whales, and they don’t think about the smaller animals; not just arachnids but mice and frogs and those smaller creatures that need just as much protection as the big animals that people relate to,” said Cleveland.
Klingensmith said the arachnids on display will include everything from armored emperor scorpion, to the bright blue (and critically endangered) peacock tarantula, to the dinner plate-sized goliath birdeater tarantula.
One notable specimen — neither spider nor scorpion — is the vinegaroon, also known as a whip scorpion. The creature gets its name from the vinegar-like odor of the acid it sprays at aggressors and, according to Cleveland, bears a visual — yet not temperamental — resemblance to the Xenomorph of the “Alien” films.
“It’s big and scary looking, but it’s pretty docile,” the exhibit designer said.
Bringing the arachnids to Park City required a few habitat changes. With the exhibit at a higher elevation and in a drier climate than its previous stops in Chicago and Salina, Kansas, the EcoCenter will maintain an interior humidity of 70 percent to keep the animals healthy. To avoid a “Fortnite” scenario where 100 enter and one leaves, each terrarium is kept separate.
As for the craft services, Klingensmith and other EcoCenter employees will keep the stars of the show fed with a steady supply of one or two live crickets per week. About 6,000 insects could give their lives in the name of education by the time the exhibit leaves town.
While modern American home-dwellers often greet spiders by either politely ushering them outside or with the sole of a Nike sneaker, the exhibit also intends to show how arachnids have made their mark in cultures across the world — much of the time with noble or mischievous connotations.
“Typically, in culture, they represent protective spirits,” Cleveland said. He cited religious examples like an Islamic parable where a spider saves Muhammad from a group of assassins by weaving a thick web over the mouth of the cave he is staying in.
It wasn’t just the Middle East where the animals made an impact. In the American Southwest, the image of the “Spider Woman,” a deity who taught humans how to weave and assists those in need, is prominent in Native American mythology. And in West Africa, the Akan folklore credits a spider, a trickster spirit named Anansi, with giving wisdom to humanity.
Arachnids also factor into regional cuisines. In Cambodia, residents and tourists can be seen snacking on crispy fried tarantula. And at the exhibit, Klingensmith said chocolate-covered scorpions are on the menu.
As a department of Utah State University, the Swaner’s mission is preservation, and Klingensmith hopes the exhibit can help break down barriers between humans and their arthropod frenemies.
“I think it’s really important that we make (arachnids) less scary,” she said, “So we’re hoping that people can come and if they have a little fear, they can conquer it and turn their fear into fascination.”
The Art and Science of Arachnids exhibit will occupy the Swaner EcoCenter from Sept. 15 to Dec. 9. For more information, visit the EcoCenter’s website at http://www.swanerecocenter.org.
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