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Rick West

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COOL CAREERS IN SCIENCE

Photo of Rick West Meet Rick West.

Rick is a tarantula's best friend. He's advised filmmakers and is Chief Special Constable for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ...but at heart, he's just a scientist who likes camping out and watching spiders. How cool is that?!
Question How did you first become interested in the natural world, and in studying tarantulas in particular?
Answer As a youngster, I lived in the country and had had no friends my age nearby, and older children teased me because of my bad stutter. My brother and sister were too young to play with, so I spent most of my time wandering in nearby meadows or along the ocean pools. I enjoyed collecting frogs, snakes, insects and crabs. My parents made me release them, explaining that they should always be left in the wild, because they would die as pets. I was allowed, though, to collect and raise caterpillars. My mother would take me to the city to talk with the late Dr. Clifford Carl of the Royal British Columbia Museum about the habits of the creatures I brought to show him.

In elementary school my stuttering grew worse, as did the teasing, and as a result I was a poor student. To encourage me to read and to improve my grades, the principal let me choose books to read to him several times a week. I always chose insect and reptile books. In fifth grade, my family moved to the city and I met other children who shared my interest in insects and animals. My stuttering improved and the teasing gradually stopped by junior high school, when my best subject was biology and my worst was mathematics.

My interest in tarantulas began in my early teens during summer visits to relatives in Poway in San Diego Country, California. My cousin Victor showed me local reptiles and insects in the hills there. One day in a citrus orchard, I spotted holes in the ground with white silk over them. When I asked what they were, I was told "Tarantulas live in there!" I could not believe that something I'd seen only in horror movies or read about in scary books could be living in holes in the ground in my cousin's backyard and he wasn't afraid.

I got a shovel and dug into the hole. All of a sudden, the dirt moved and out scrambled a huge brown tarantula. At first, it appeared to me to be as big as a guinea pig. I caught the hairy beast in a carton and was totally mesmerized by it, looking at it every hour over the next few days. When it came time to go home, I couldn't let it go. With my aunt's and uncle's assurances that tarantulas were harmless, and mine that I would be careful, my parents let me bring it back to Victoria. I remember I wanted to hold it but couldn't find any information on how bad its bite was or if tarantulas were truly dangerous or aggressive. It sounds silly now, but for the first few months I wore leather gloves to hold the spider. Gradually seeing that it wasn't going to bite, I began handling it with my bare hands. I found great satisfaction in being able to dispel the unfounded fear of tarantulas.

In the mid-1970s I joined the newly formed American Tarantula Society, which is still active today. The Society is made up of hobbyists and a few researchers and scientists who have the same fascination for tarantulas as I do. Their goal is to promote the study of these spiders and share information about them to dispel their bad reputation. I wrote and shared many articles in their monthly journal and, in return, learned more about tarantulas from reading others' stories. If you know a lot about something, be it stamps, tropical fish, reptiles, or any subject, find a club or society and share that information with them.
Question Tell us what you do during a typical day in the field.
Answer Tarantulas are mainly active at night, so I do most of my study and photography at night. By day I look for good areas to search by night, or I photograph the animals and plants. Usually, I get out of the hammock at 6:00 a.m., eat a good camp breakfast, and head into the desert or forest. By noon it's too hot to work so I return to camp to write notes, organize and clean equipment, or study and photograph the tarantulas that have been caught. Due to the heat, I often skip lunch and just have an early dinner so I can get into the forest or desert just as the tarantulas are emerging from their burrows. Sometimes I don't go to bed until about 1 a.m.
Question Is your work dangerous?
Answer My work can be dangerous when I am in a rain forest or a country where I don't know anyone. I've walked into quicksand in Panama while working alone and had a hard time getting free. I was stung by a scorpion while alone in the bush in Mexico and had to get immediate help because I had trouble breathing. In southern Venezuela my partner and I watched Yanomami Indian men dance and take hallucinogenic drugs until an interpreter explained that they had just attacked and killed several other Indian men in a neighboring village and were preparing for a counterattack. We quickly left!

Now I always hire a guide who knows the people and dangers to avoid in an area. And I have to watch out for poisonous snakes. I consider my work both exciting and dangerous but wouldn't change it for anything.
Question Is there anything about your work you don't like?
Answer A difficult thing about being away while studying tarantulas is the loneliness and wishing I could share some beautiful moments with my wife. You forget how harsh field conditions can be until you're actually back in the field again - then you may find you wish you were back home in comfort. The second hardest thing is the difficulty in bringing live or dead tarantulas home for scientific study. In countries where tarantulas live, most people kill them on sight. Their governments make it nearly impossible to take tarantulas out of these counties to study in order to educate people about this misunderstood creature. I am also very sad at times to see the large destruction of rain forests or deserts by humans before researchers are able to learn about the plants and animals that live in them and how they might be important to us.
Question What are most proud of?
Answer I am most proud of initiating the story for and being the scientific advisor on the film Giant Tarantula. This film not only shows the natural history of giant tarantulas in the rain forest, but also shows how the Piaroa Indian of southern Venezuela use these giant spiders as a valuable food source and in their spiritual ceremonies. It is important to have an appreciation and respect for other cultures.

Tarantulas have been misunderstood, and I think this is partly because of the way they were depicted in horror books and movies in the past. Tarantulas were once thought to be deadly poisonous. However, I do not know of a single human fatality directly related to the effects of their poison. Some people are also afraid of spiders in general, and tarantulas especially, because they are largest and hairiest of spiders. I am proud of the fact that nature documentaries have helped to correct some of the harmful stories about tarantulas.
Question What is left for you to explore?
Answer I will always look to explore regions beyond where other researchers have been. I will always want to look for and study those yet undiscovered tarantulas. I am now working on a tarantula film for Discovery Television-Canada and have tarantula study trips planned for Peru and possibly East Africa. I don't know what lies ahead for me -- I just appreciate my good health, the love and support of my family, and every day as it comes..

If you would like to know more about Rick West, you can read his biography and check out the questions he answered for Spiders! (Show 905) in the Ask the Scientists section.



 

Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.