Member's of the Hong Kong Tarantula Club (from far left) Ricky Chan, Bowie Chan, and founder Bunny Poon King-chung, at the Hong Kong Reptile Channel in Mong Kok. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Here come the spider men: Hong Kong’s tarantula collectors reveal what goes on in their hairy hobby

A niche group of enthusiasts keep the giant venomous spiders as pets

The number eight is well-known as an auspicious number in Chinese numerology.

The word sounds phonetically similar to “fortune” and “one hundred” – the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games began on August 8, 2008 at 8 pm, and an eight-digit telephone number consisting of only the number eight was reportedly sold for 2.33 million yuan (HK$2.69 million) in 2003.

But the lucky number is not the reason why members of the Hong Kong Tarantula Club love to keep the eight-legged arachnids as pets.

Bunny Poon King-chung started the club in 1999, but his interest in tarantulas began when he was a child. Living in the countryside, he came across spiders regularly and did not fear handling them. Poon got his first tarantula pet at age 20, and has more than 500 today.

Poon opened the club’s Facebook page in 2010, which now has more than 1,300 likes. Group members meet occasionally to purchase or exchange tarantulas, and tell stories of their pets.

“They’re easy to care for, they don’t need a lot of space and they require little time [for care],” he said.

Bowie Chan got his first spider when he was 15 years old. Today, he has about 100 tarantulas in his home, down from a peak ownership of 700.

Due to his busy schedule, he sold most of his collection. He kept his pets in an empty guest room in his home. At first, he admitted, his wife had a hard time accepting his unusual hobby, but she eventually came to terms with it.

Chan’s love of arachnids and reptiles, led him to opening his own store, Hong Kong Reptile Channel, in Mong Kok in May. His shop houses various species of lizards, snakes, tortoises, and of course tarantulas, as well as the items needed for their care.

Prior to opening his shop, Chan gained popularity through his YouTube videos, showcasing different types of reptiles, amphibians and spiders. A lot of his viewers and subscribers are now his customers.

Chan orders different tarantula species from various sellers around the globe, including the US, Britain and mainland China. Popular species are the Brazilian black and white, Brazilian white knee, and Mexican red knee, while the Phlogiellus xinping is Hong Kong’s only indigenous species of Tarantula.

Prices for tarantulas range from tens of dollars to a few thousand, depending on the species and their rarity. The amount of web a tarantula will spin also depends on the species.

Another arachnid fan, Ricky Chan, owns around a dozen tarantulas. “I have a pink one, a blue one, and green. I like to collect different colours, [while Poon and Bowie Chan] are more into [different] species,” he said.

We consider turtles and lizards to be exotic. But tarantulas are the exotic of the exotic
Bowie Chan, enthusiast

According to club members, tarantulas are low maintenance in terms of care, but the club encourages people to do their research before purchasing one.

“In secondary school I had one, but I knew nothing about tarantulas and he died a month later,” Ricky Chan said.

Tarantulas require a plastic case - at least five times the length of the spider – pesticide-free bedding, a hiding hole – typically a hollow fake rock – and sprays of water once every few days, while also ensuring their water dish is filled. They only need to be fed once every seven to 10 days.

Tarantulas prefer to eat crickets, but they will eat other insects. Ricky Chan tried to breed Dubia cockroaches – a popular prey used by such hobbyists – to feed his spiders, but the breeding got out of hand: “They were too easy to breed. I had 1,000 of them.”

These giant spiders prefer to be alone. Putting a second tarantula inside the same tank will usually lead to one becoming the other’s meal. Ricky Chan said putting two spiders in the same tank to mate can backfire when one of the tarantulas – usually the male, which is smaller – becomes dinner.

They are a commitment for pet owners with the average lifespan of male tarantulas between five to 10 years, and 15 to 20 years for females.

Poon does not expect his club to grow rapidly, as the hobby is very niche.

“We consider turtles and lizards to be exotic. But tarantulas are the exotic of the exotic. The number of people who like them are very little,” Bowie Chan said.

For those who are thinking of owning a hairy eight-legged friend, club members strongly warn against handling a tarantula without proper supervision, as all tarantulas are venomous, and reactions to bites can range from mild irritation to death. “Normally we handle tarantulas that are tamer, and not too aggressive,” Bowie Chan said.

He also advised never to feed tarantulas by hand and instead use metal tongs.

If someone happens to come across a tarantula, the best way to handle it is to cup it and slide a piece of paper underneath, before carrying it outside for release.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: here come the spider men