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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Have No Fear

Air Date: Week of

A Huntsman spider (Photo: Tim Williams)

Scared of those big hairy spiders? A course at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia can help even the most arachnophobic individuals conquer their fears. Radio Deutsche Welle’s Cinnamon Nippard reports.


GELLERMAN: Australia is home to some of the world’s deadliest spiders, so it’s no surprise that many people there get nervous around the eight-legged creatures. In fact some people even panic at a mere picture of a spider. So at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney Australia, they’ve developed a course to help truly terrified people overcome arachnophobia—that’s the fear of spiders. Radio Deutsche Welle’s Cinnamon Nippard has our story.


NIPPARD: Warrick Angus is the Australian foreign precinct manager at Taronga Zoo in Sidney. He’s a former arachnophobic and it took him ten years to get over his fear. Now he helps other to get over their fear in just four hours. One of the keys to the success of the course is educating the participants about the sorts of spiders living in Australia and their role in the ecosystem.

ANGUS: The spiders most people are scared of are the larger, hairier ones, and in Australia that’s the huntsman spider. It’s a spider we often find in our homes and they come in our homes because there’s lots of insects for them to eat. Spiders eat over 90 percent of all the insects in the world. So, you know, if you’re having a barbeque at home and there’s one little fly bothering you, then if it wasn’t for spiders there’d be 90 flies bothering you.

NIPPARD: While huntsman spiders can give you a bite, they won’t kill you. And besides, they’re usually quite timid so bites are rare. But being long legged, big and furry, they fall into the category of spider that most people don’t like. However, Warrick says that we should be afraid of spiders for a more serious reason.

Huntsman spiders are very common in Australia.
(Photo: Susan Freeman)

WARRICK: In Australia we have the most dangerous spiders in the world, and so we can’t tell the participants, you know, ‘don’t worry, they’re not going to hurt you.’ We have to say, ‘well, they can hurt you.’ And I have learned that the best way to get people over their fear is to educate people about spiders and so rather than seeing them as sort of a scary, mythical beast, which they may perceive them to be, something that’s out there to hunt them and attack them, I want to see them as an animal that has a place of being or a place of belonging in and around our homes.


NIPPARD: Australia is home to the notorious and deadly red-back and funnel-web spiders. So keeping a safe distance and having a healthy respect for these creatures makes sense. But for people who have phobias, the fear of the object or situation is so intense, it’s irrational and often causes physical symptoms like hyperventilation and panic attacks. Dr. Lisa Phillips is a psychologist and lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Melbourne.

PHILLIPS: An individual who experiences a phobia will experience these intense fear sensations, both thoughts—so, panicky thoughts, not wanting to see the thing that they’re worried about, and so forth—but also associated with that will be a range of physical symptoms or physical signs, as well, such as a racing heart, shakiness, blushing perhaps, trembling sort of feelings and so forth.

NIPPARD: Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, is one of the most common fears. Debora Ford hails from the UK but now lives in Australia. She used to be arachnophobic and her fear was at a level that interfered in her everyday life.

A Huntsman spider (Photo: Tim Williams)

FORD: I was at work and I was in the kitchen and a huntsman appeared on the wall, and I just saw it out of the corner of my eye and I just froze—couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch my breath, just tears were streaming down my face. And my manager, my manager stood right in front of me, and he had to literally pick me up and carry me out the kitchen and I remember thinking ‘this isn’t normal, this isn’t normal behavior.’

NIPPARD: The fearless course at Taronga Zoo aims to address these sorts of symptoms and this fear by educating participants about spiders and giving them practical skills so that they can deal with these creatures in a humane and safe way, without reaching for a can of pesticide. Warrick Angus from Taronga Zoo.

ANGUS: When people start the program, they come with a certain feeling about spiders and you might say it’s a comfort zone. And in their comfort zone when they arrive, it might be that they can barely talk about a spider, and if they start talking about the different parts of the spider they start to feel sick. So that might be their comfort zone. So we want to push their comfort zone and make it bigger. So, the first step is to talk about spiders quite a bit so they’re comfortable with that. And then look at spiders so they’re comfortable with that, and then maybe look at a live one, and then maybe hold a container with a spider in it, and then maybe touch a dead spider, and then touch a live one.

NIPPARD: And just in case you’re thinking about picking up that friendly-looking spider on your wall, before you do—Warrick has a word of warning.

WARRICK: Now, we don’t encourage people to touch live spiders out of the zoo. But by giving people that memory, if you like, of actually touching a live spider or holding a spider, then capturing a spider without holding it is much easier.


NIPPARD: Holding a huntsman spider was a big step for Deborah because her fear was so great, she even had to be careful watching wildlife shows in case a spider suddenly flashed onto the TV screen.

FORD: I actually didn’t’ know what a huntsman looked like. I had an image of it in my head of this big, furry tarantula thing and everyone goes ‘oh, they’re horrible!’ And then, once I’d seen—been able to look at a tarantula—I looked at the huntsman and said ‘is that it? That’s not scary.’ And I had it crawling up my arm and on my hands, and yeah, you just put it on the floor, put a pot over it and yeah the feeling of just euphoria. You just couldn’t stop smiling and the fact that you know, something, my family said that I’d never be able to do and I said I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I did, and it was just the best feeling in the world.

NIPPARD: For Deborah, the education component of the course really made a difference.

FORD: You know, I think one of the most important things I learned, which has stuck with me—if you’re in bed at night, they’re not going to jump on you. They don’t want to be anywhere near you. You’re not food. You’re moving; you’re breathing. If a spider’s in your room, it’s not going to come near you, because you have this fear they’re going to drop on you. And I think that made a lot of people at ease when we were told that, you know, that they will keep away from you. And that has stuck with me, and now, I’ve had huntsman in my bedroom and I just leave them. They don’t bother me at all.

NIPPARD: Boasting a 97 percent success rate in its arachnophobia course, Taronga Zoo is now helping people get over their fear of snakes and they also have plans to branch out to moths, birds, and cockroaches. Cinnamon Nippard, Sidney.


GELLERMAN: Our story about spiders comes to us courtesy of Radio Deutsche Welle.



Radio Deutsche Welle’s Spectrum program

Taronga Zoo, Australia


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