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It's That Time Again To Stock Up On Deadly Aussie Spider Venom

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are spiders and then there are Australia's Funnel Web spiders. Their bite is one of the most venomous in the world. Victims die quickly without the antidote, which is made from the spider's venom. To ensure there is enough venom, every year at this time, the Australian Reptile Park asks the public to capture spiders and turn them in. Mike Drinkwater manages the spider section at the Reptile Park. He joins us now on the line. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL DRINKWATER: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: OK, so I read on your website, and I'm quoting here, "Funnel Webs are extremely aggressive spiders and will have no hesitation in standing their ground and defending themselves. If provoked, the fangs will strike downwards with great speed and force." So that sounds kind of scary to me. So how do you convince people to help you go out and intentionally try to capture these spiders?

DRINKWATER: It's obviously not easy and whilst they are scary, whilst they are dangerous, we put a lot into educating people how to do it safely because without the public donations, we simply wouldn't get the spiders we need to create the anti-venom we need to save lives every year.

MARTIN: Is there a way you could kind of farm them or breed them in captivity instead of asking the public to just kind of go out in their backyards or forests or wherever they live and get them?

DRINKWATER: They are very, very difficult animals to breed in captivity. They're actually even very difficult to keep in captivity. The males are very, very short-lived and they're the ones that we are really after, given that the male Funnel Web spiders are actually six times more venomous than the females. So over the past 30 years, we've been relying on the public to help us out and they've done that very, very well.

MARTIN: How do you teach people how to catch these spiders safely? What are the tips that you give out?

DRINKWATER: You start out with a very tall glass jar - we encourage people not to use thin, plastic takeaway containers and things like that because the fangs are sharp enough to pierce those containers - and use something like a standard schoolroom ruler or a long stick or something like that and you just simply flick them into the jar and flip it up and then you're nice and safe.

MARTIN: Why are they called Funnel Webs? What do they look like?

DRINKWATER: They're quite a large spider and then they've got a very large abdomen. And they're a black, glossy spider. So they're your typical very kind of scary looking spider, if you like. Now, the females live underground. They live in burrows and within that burrow, they line that burrow with a sock-like web and it makes a tubular kind of effect down into the ground. And thus the name funnel web is associated with that. It's not true in the case of the males, which are very nomadic. They get around, walking around in the yard, looking for the girls. They don't live in a burrow. They'll live under the crevice of rocks or under some clothes and shoes that are outside your house where they've taken refuge under from the sunlight. So they're the ones that you've got to really be careful of.

MARTIN: I can tell you like them or at least you respect him.

DRINKWATER: Look, I absolutely respect them. You know, they play their critical little role in the ecosystem. And, yeah, we absolutely love them to death. But we're also very, very proud of the work that we do here with them. Since the introduction of the program in 1981, there hasn't been a single death from Funnel Webs.

MARTIN: Mike Drinkwater, he's the operations manager for the Australian Reptile Park just outside of Sydney. Thanks so much for talking with us.

DRINKWATER: You're most welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORIS THE SPIDER")

THE WHO: (Singing) Look, he's crawling up my wall. Black and hairy, very small. Now he's up above my head... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.