On a recent Sunday, Kimberley-Anne Johnson (a.k.a. The Crazy Spider Lady) was standing behind the table of her booth at the Manitoba Reptile Breeders Expo holding out a tarantula that filled the palm of her hand while a five-year-old girl tentatively stroked its furry back. I have to admit it made my skin crawl a little.
There were plenty of geckos and snakes on display, but the non-reptile spiders are what really make me want to run screaming from the room. So, I just had to go and talk to Johnson to find out what it was that made her crazy for spiders.
How did this all start?
"My husband and I walked into River City Reptiles, when they were still up and running. He asked me if I wanted a snake and I said, 'Are you crazy?' So, he said, 'How about a tarantula?' and I said, 'Well, OK.'
I'm an avid animal lover. I wanted a ferret, I wanted a parrot and I had a Rottweiler; I still do. We were driving home and my husband says to me, 'I will make you a deal, as long as you don't have any other pets aside from your dog you can have as many spiders as you want.'
It's eight years later and I have 160. We have found that it's my passion."
If you could give a piece of advice to a large group of people what would it be?
"Live life to the fullest. I've battled cancer three or four times. Most of my insides are gone and I've come to the realization that you have to live each day for its day. You can't worry about tomorrow or you can't worry about yesterday, you have to live in the moment and just grasp life and live it."
What is the best or most amazing feature that people might not know about tarantulas?
"They all have their own personalities. Some are really skittish, some are like rocks, but you have some you take out and you hold them and when you go to put them back, they don't want to go back. They would rather be sitting on you just chilling.
A lot of tarantulas are what you call ‘hair flickers' and they will take their back legs and rub them on their body to send out hairs. If the hairs get in your eyes you could be blinded. If you breath the hairs in you could have respiratory problems for the rest of your life. If you get bit and you are allergic to bees or wasps then have an EpiPen handy....
"Whenever I get a spider I learn as much as I possibly can about it. My husband is always telling me I should go to university... If somebody goes to a pet store and has questions about spiders, they usually send them to me. I have the largest collection in Winnipeg. I have the only true Goliath Bird Eater in Manitoba and I'm not tooting my own horn, I've been told this by everybody, I'm the most knowledgeable person there is to talk to about spiders or tarantulas."
So the hairs can be dangerous. Have you ever had a situation where...
"At the last expo, I was leaning over my Goliath tank to decide whether or not I was going to bring her. She decided that she would send up this big poof of hair that got me all over the bottom of my face. The best way I can describe it feeling like is taking your face and dipping it in pink insulation."
The experience of owning these spiders must have given you an opportunity to meet really interesting people.
"I've met interesting people, but honestly the biggest downside of it is that a lot of people misunderstand tarantulas. A lot of people are scared of them. That's the biggest thing, people are too scared to get over their fear of spiders. When I first got into them, I was petrified of them. I just fed them in their tank and watched them. Then I started to handle them and my fear lessened every day.
"The thing that I like the most about it is when you have families at the expo and you have little two or three year old kids and the kids are willing to hold the spiders. That is so awesome, because then they are not growing up with that fear."