Thursday, June 5, 2014

What to do when you find a black widow

When we moved up into the mountains nine months ago, we knew that there would be an increase in certain dangers over our suburban environment. We nixed the first rental I fell in love with after the real estate agent warned that its location up on the edge of the mountain would attract rattlesnakes and that bobcats and mountain lions might think our daughter looked tasty.

Now that we live a little further down the mountain, and aside from the mild surprise of bear cubs living under our deck and our neighbor who feeds a community of raccoons from his front porch, our run-ins with wildlife have been pretty benign. The stray wind-scorpion has been enough to keep us pleasantly on our toes.

But in the last few months, I've noticed webs and what appear to be egg sacs in the corners of our garage. De-cluttering the space and cleaning up the webs went on my list of things to do, a list which might also be called my "list of things I probably won't do anytime soon."

That is, until the evening this week that I found this beauty hanging out next to our washing machine:

Yeah, that's a black widow. You can tell because when you see it, your heart stops beating for a second, you break out in sweats, and you have to fight the urge to run screaming. Individually, these symptoms might not be conclusive, but when you put them all together: yep, it's a widow. Here it is again, with a banana for scale:

After stepping away and calming myself, I found a jar and leather gloves and collected the evil-looking specimen. My wife found me some time later, and curiously watched as I repeatedly picked up the jar to examine it closely and then lost my nerve, put the jar back down, and stepped back several paces to morosely consider my family's imminent demise.
"Whatcha got there?" my wife asked. "A black widow," I said, feeling like I was pronouncing a death sentence. "I think there's more of 'em out there, too." I tried not to think about how numerous and tiny spider babies are. (I'm still trying not to think about it.)  
"Oh, we used to have those all the time in our shed growing up. Just try not to touch 'em." she said. "Anyway, did you finish the laundry?"
I tried to tell her that it was while doing laundry that I'd found this minion of Satan, this death-dealer, and that it was unlikely I'd ever be able to do laundry again. But she raised her eyebrow and told me not to be a baby. And to finish the laundry.

I debated flushing the widow after I'd gotten a few good pictures as proof of my near-death experience. But then I decided that if we're in widow country, I'd better take this opportunity to educate my daughter about things that are dangerous and that we never, never touch. Had I tried this talk with her a year or two ago, it probably would have backfired. Telling a toddler not to touch something pretty well guarantees it. But this four-year-old of mine, she's really growing up. The best I can do is teach her right and then give her opportunities to demonstrate that her instincts for self-preservation are finally kicking in.

Of course, when I showed her the spider the next morning, I probably could have predicted her reaction:
Her: "Oh, wow! I just love it so much!" 
Me: "Did you understand when I said that it was dangerous? 
Her: "Yes, but it's so beautiful! I love the red on its body. That's a pretty color!" 
Me: "If it bites you, you might die." 
Her: "I want to name it Noodle! Can I keep it?!"
Sigh. I finally extracted a promise from her that if she found any similar spiders, she wouldn't touch them. But she didn't promise that she wouldn't name them or love them. I can't help feeling that there's some validity to her attitude; it's just hard as a dad to reserve any appreciation for hazardous things, things that threaten the well-being of your kid.

But that's life, I guess, right? The black widow may as well be a metaphor for the risks that we'll all encounter. Life: it's beautiful, and it's dangerous.

Even more, the black widow is a metaphor for raising kids. When my daughter was a newborn, a black widow's bite would have been horrific. In the first year or so, it seemed everything about this infant's environment was a threat. And since babies have very bad judgment, it was almost silly how many of those threats could be lethal. Grapes, grapes were our greatest fear.

But at four years old, she's making big strides in discernment. Many of the things that were so dangerous when she was an infant are not nearly so dangerous now. If a widow bit her, it'd still be bad. But there's very little chance it would be lethal. As with so many other risks that we've feared, the danger of the widow decreases little bit by bit with each year. The risks aren't negligible; but they somehow become manageable enough that after safely reaching adulthood ourselves, we parents actually decide to bring more fragile souls into this dangerous world. The idea is that we'll be able to shield them just long enough for them to stop putting bugs in their mouths and knives in electrical sockets, and if we've done our job, they'll gradually be able to negotiate future dangers without needing our intervention.

In the meantime, yeah, I'm gonna be cleaning out our garage. But no matter how much I clean, there will still be black widows in the world, and I'm gonna try not to freak out, and instead take this moment to practice trust - trust that my growing girl can start negotiating some of the world's dangers for herself.


UPDATE: In the two days since we found our widow, my four-year-old and I have talked a lot about Noodle and what makes her special. And frightening. And lovable. If we're sitting at my computer, she'll say, "type in 'spider'! I want to see more cute spiders!" or she'll say, "how do you spell 'spinneret'? NO, LET ME TYPE THE LETTERS!" And of course there's now all sorts of creepy-crawly bug art floating around the place now. Which is kind of cool. After she went to bed, I finished doodling out the spider diagrams I started with her to explain spider anatomy:

And yesterday, in the thick of all of our arachnid fever, we decided to have her visit the Insect Lore Bugseum in Bakersfield, after which she brought home her very own Praying Mantis egg case (bought buy her Tio), also called an "ootheca." Which, I assure you, is quite amusing to hear a four-year-old pronounce.

I don't always tame my fear and capture a black widow and research the bejeezus out of it and plan appropriate safety and science lectures for my kid, but when I do, it sure can be a lot of fun.

A note on black widows: After my initial freak-out (they're killers! BURN EVERYTHING!), I did a little research and came up with this page on Black Widow and Other Widow Spiders from UC Davis' Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. It helped calm me down, and gave some good scientific advice about the best ways to manage infestations.