Sunday, 9 November 2014

OF MICE AND TARANTULAS – the things our characters make us do.

By Jackie Marchant - author of I'm Dougal Trump - Where's my Tarantula?

I’m Jackie Marchant and I’m an arachnophobe.   Things eight-legged make me behave disgracefully, causing me to shriek, jump about and other silly stuff I’d rather not mention.  I can’t help it – they give me serious heebie-jeebies.  There, I’ve confessed.  I feel a little better now.

You might be asking why a sensible arachophobe like me should write a book about a tarantula.  Good question.  I could tell you that the book was born of a cathartic need to express my feelings about our eight-legged friends, but no.  I’m Dougal Trump – Where’s my Tarantula was written because Dougal Trump went and got himself a tarantula – then promptly lost it.   Not only that, he managed to acquire and lose several other creaturely beings as well.  It was a story so bizarre it had to be written.

The problem with Dougal is that he loves all things creepy and crawly – the creepier and crawlier the better.  The more legs the better.  So, when he was asked to look after a tarantula, how could he resist?  It wasn’t just a tarantula, it was a goliath bird eating spider, the largest tarantula in the world by weight, the second largest by leg span, beaten only by Australia’s giant huntsman (why do people have to put words like giant and Goliath in front of the word ‘spider’?) 

Dougal's Goliath Bird Eating Spider - she's called Sybil

Now you might be wondering why I let him get away with it.  He’s my character after all, isn’t he?  Shouldn’t I decide what he likes and dislikes?  Well, no.  The thing about creating characters is that you have to listen to them – if they like spiders, they like spiders, whether you do or not.  Or, to put it another way, Dougal Trump is as real to me as the boy next door.  And when he acquired his tarantula, I had no choice but to do some research into these lovely (I say that with great reservation) creatures.

I discovered that the word tarantula simply means very hairy spider.  In other words all tarantulas are spiders, but not all spiders are tarantulas.  Not something I was keen on knowing.  The goliath bird eating spider doesn’t actually eat birds that often – they prefer to lurk in their burrows and pounce on unsuspecting mice.   
I’m feeling a little ill now . . .

And I haven’t mentioned that in captivity goliath bird-eaters – as they are affectionately known by entomologists (who are affectionately known by me as mad people) – are generally fed a diet of mice and crickets.  In order to keep crickets, you have to have mealworms.  These are like giant maggots and they come alive and wriggling.  You feed the live wriggling mealworms to your crickets, and then you feed your crickets – live – to your tarantula.

Dougal very 'kindly' sent me this picture of his mealworms

I’ve gone all shaky – and I haven’t got to the mice yet . . .

Here goes.  Not live mice*, I hasten to add, but special humanely killed frozen pinkie mice you buy in a pet shop. You 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?  I’m a writer and for us, the research is vital – I can’t have my readers subjected to incorrect facts, it’s just not on.  In order to write Dougal Trump’s story, I had no choice but to read in great detail about the above, download lots of ghastly pictures to look at, watch countless YouTube clips of wriggling mealworms, mice being eaten, tarantulas pouncing, a wild Goliath 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**.   Even more unfortunately, the clip had me mesmerised.  With ever widening eyes and a squeaky sound coming out of me, 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.
Dougal wanted me to put his crickets here as well . . .
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 your search engine.
***This is highly unlikely.
Dear Dougal,
No I am NOT putting YouTube clip of
Mice being eaten by a tarantula,
a bullfrog a python or ANYTHING!!

Jackie Marchant is the author of the award winning Dougal Trump series (Macmillan).  She lives in Northwest London.  Dougal Trump lives in Ocklesford Middlesex with his unbelievable family, daft cat, crazy hamster and mad dog.  He attends Ocklesford Junior School and has the most boring teacher in the world.