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Celebrate the romance of tarantulas' mating season at this Colorado festival

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Watch out, people. Tarantulas are on the move in southeastern Colorado. Actually, don't worry. Those big and very hairy spiders are not really migrating. They are just out and about, looking for love. That is right. It is tarantula mating season in the Colorado plains, and the small city of La Junta capitalizes on their season of romance with a tarantula festival. Shanna Lewis of member station KRCC went to check it out.

SHANNA LEWIS, BYLINE: It's a windy evening. Dust swirls on dirt roads running through more than 400,000 acres of cactus-studded grasslands south of La Junta. A two-tone brown tarantula about the size of an adult's fist crawls through the scrubby plants. Jessica LePage snaps a photo of it with her cellphone as the spider starts towards her.

JESSICA LEPAGE: Oh, God. He turned. He turned. Oh, my goodness.

LEWIS: LePage is here with one of the festival's Tarantula Trek bus tours to see the creatures in the wild and learn more about them.

So have you held one?

LEPAGE: No.

LEWIS: Would you?

LEPAGE: Absolutely not.

LEWIS: LePage's reaction to the big, hairy spiders isn't uncommon, so maybe it's a little strange for the small city of La Junta to aim for the title tarantula capital of the world. But maybe not, because there are a lot of tarantula fans, too, something the city's tourism director, Pamela Denahy, didn't imagine as a kid growing up there.

PAMELA DENAHY: Never did I think that they would be a tourism draw.

LEWIS: But Denahy says hundreds of people from all over Colorado and even out of state are turning out for the second-annual tarantula celebration. Festival organizer Angela Ayala's booth is a popular spot to get some spidery swag.

ANGELA AYALA: We do custom T-shirts, of course the tarantula fest buttons, souvenir tarantulas. If you don't find them out south, you can get one custom here. And they won't crawl all over you, and they won't die (laughter).

LEWIS: Along with a human hairy legs contest and an eight-legged race, the festival has an education component, too. Tarantula researcher Dallas Haselhuhn of Eastern Michigan University Shillington Arachnid Laboratory heads out to meet the bus tours.

DALLAS HASELHUHN: We got a good spider sighting right here, and I got to jump out and, again, probably do my best Steve Irwin and grab it, wrestle it.

LEWIS: He squats next to the tarantula in the middle of the road.

HASELHUHN: So right now, he's trying to be big and scary, even though he's about as heavy as a quarter. So I'm just going to slowly edge him into a little container 'cause I don't want to get bit or anything like that.

LEWIS: Haselhuhn says their bites can really hurt, but the venom is only about as bad as a bee sting. We spot dozens of tarantulas on the move. Haselhuhn says they're males wandering around looking for females. Once they find a potential paramour, they have an odd courtship ritual where they tap out a rhythm with their legs to draw the female out of her burrow.

HASELHUHN: They're going to do their little dance and drum set, hopefully have a successful mate. And if they're quick enough, they're able to get away and try and find another mate.

LEWIS: They need to skedaddle because their love interest might decide to eat them for dinner. That's not the only threat to those roaming males. There are plenty of predators, too.

HASELHUHN: I usually call them as, like, a quick snack for coyotes. It's going to just snap it up as a nice little protein bar.

LEWIS: These spiders are the most abundant tarantula species in the United States, with a range from New Mexico to Louisiana. But Haselhuhn says they aren't that well studied. And while the folks in La Junta want visitors to love their tarantulas, they tell festivalgoers to take a picture home, not a tarantula. For NPR News, I'm Shanna Lewis in La Junta, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shanna Lewis
Shanna Lewis’ work as an independent radio producer and journalist has aired on NPR’s newscast and news magazines, Voice of America, Prime Time Radio and Pulse of the Planet, among others. Freelance print and photography work by Shanna has been featured in The Denver Post, The National Post (Canada), High Country News and other publications. She is the recipient of a Colorado AP (Associated Press) Broadcast award, garnered seven Colorado Press Association awards for reporting and photography and contributed to a number of award winning broadcast, online and multimedia projects.