Jackie Marchant Talks To Bookbag About Mice and Tarantulas - the things we do for research

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Jackie Marchant Talks To Bookbag About Mice and Tarantulas - the things we do for research

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Summary: Jackie is terrified of spiders but with the boy-next-door, Dougal Trump she's just written a book about tarantulas.
Date: 10 June 2013

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External links: Author's website



I'm arachnophobic. There, I've said it, I've confessed. Things eight-legged give me the heebie-jeebies. They make me shriek and other silly stuff. So, you may well ask, what was I doing writing a book about a tarantula?

They say that if you are a writer, you should write what you know. So you might expect me to write a soul searching, cathartic book about fear of our eight-legged friends. But no – I'm Dougal Trump – Where's my Tarantula? is about a boy who loves his pet tarantula and is distraught when she goes missing (not it, but she). Why would I want to write that?

The simple answer is that Dougal Trump, who is as real to me as the boy next door, loves anything creepy and crawly, the more creepy and crawly the better. The bigger the better. The more horrible its habits the better. And, when I'm writing Dougal Trump, I write him warts (aka tarantulas) and all.

One of the reasons Dougal chooses to look after a tarantula is because her name is Sybil. The same as his sister, although he prefers to misspell his sister's name 'Sibble'. And this Sybil has eight hairy legs, not two. But the main reason is that Dougal can't believe how awesome this eight legged creature is. Sybil is a magnificent example of the world's largest tarantula – the goliath bird eating spider. If you go to a zoo, they're the ones that are even bigger and hairier than the rest. In terms of weight, they are the largest spider in the world, in terms of size, only Australia's giant huntsman has a larger leg-span.

I'm beginning to feel sick now . . .

And I haven't mentioned that, in case you're wondering, the word tarantula simply refers to a very hairy spider. That means Sybil is both a spider (about the biggest you'll ever see) and a tarantula (about as hairy as they come). You might also be wondering whether goliath bird-eaters, as entomologists (mad people who love giant creepy crawlies) call them, actually eat birds. They do, but not often. Mostly they eat mice (more of that later) and passing insects (ditto). They were so named after a bunch of Victorians witnessed one eating a hummingbird. Instead of keeling over, they named the tarantula the goliath (because it's BIG) bird eating spider.

I've gone all shaky . . .

In the wild, the goliath bird eating spider likes to hide in a burrow and pounce on suspecting prey, which can be anything from an insect, to a rat to a – yes, a mouse. In captivity, tarantulas are mostly fed crickets and mice. In order to keep crickets, you need to keep mealworms – these are like giant maggots, and they come alive and wriggling. You feed the live wriggling mealworms to your crickets, which you then feed, live, to your tarantula.

And I haven't even got to the mice yet . . .

Here goes. Not live ones*, I hasten to add, but special humanely killed pinkie mice you buy in a pet shop. You can keep them in the freezer and defrost as necessary. But it's a good idea to let your family members know that there is an ice cream container full of mice in the freezer. Or, as Dougal finds out, the family can go a little mad.

Talking of mad . . .

Why did I do this to myself? In order to write as Dougal Trump, I had to read about all this in detail, watch YouTube clips of wriggling mealworms, of mice being eaten, of tarantulas pouncing, of a wild bird-eating spider crawling up someone's arm (who confessed to breaking out into a sweat – and he was an enthusiast).

So, when Dougal feeds his tarantula a frozen (but defrosted) mouse, I had to find out what that would really be like. Unfortunately, the YouTube clip I found showed a tarantula being offered a live mouse for its dinner**. Mesmerised, I watched this little white mouse innocently sniffing around and then –

I really can't bear to think about what happened next. The things we do for research.

And then Dougal goes and gets a load more creatures and what do they eat? If not crickets or mealworms, then mice. Back to the research board and this time I was watching mice being eaten by everything from an African bullfrog to a python.

Over and over again, because I'm a writer and it's important to be accurate.

I think need to have a lie down . . .

. . . and hope that Dougal does something nice and sensible in his next book***.

  • Some people do feed their pet tarantulas live mice, but not Dougal.
    • You really don't want to type 'tarantula eating mouse', into google.
      • This is highly unlikely.