One of the most exciting Australian zoo developments in a very long time is Spider World. Visitors to the Australian Reptile Park now have the opportunity to find out everything they ever wanted to know about spiders – while having an absolute hoot in the process. Spider World puts the ‘fun’ back into ‘funny’, while at the same time providing visitors with a greatly improved understanding of the eight-legged world. Even self-confessed arachnophobics that have experienced the exhibition typically leave in stitches of laughter.
Visitors are initially drawn into Spider World by the seriously cute rap-dancing spider-rapper ‘Syd’ (short for Sydney Funnel-web Spider). Upon activating a sensor outside the Spider World entry, Syd goes into welcome mode – rappin’ and shakin’ to a funky beat:
“Welcome to my parlour. won’t you come a little farther?. Yeah, my name is Sydney, that’s Syd to cut it short…”
Syd’s rap message is occasionally interrupted by the high-pitched droning voice of the tragic-looking ‘Buzz’ the fly, another would-be rapper, who reports to having been caught up in Syd’s web of deceipt. The tension between the extrovert Syd, clamoring for trust and a little understanding, and Buzz, the professional victim, resurfaces throughout the exhibition in various forms.
Spider World pokes fun at many traditional ‘Australianisms’ – from the fair-dinkum outdoor dunny – cluttered, in this instance with cat-sized red-back spiders, to the typical Aussie back yard – complete with the old ‘hills-hoist’ clothesline and its inevitable burden of sun-bleached blue singlets and Stubbies shorts. The Aussie homestead is portrayed from a ‘bug’s-eye-view’. Muralised walls and ceiling are reminiscent of scenes from the film ‘Honey I shrunk the kids’. A three-metre-high animatronic funnel-web spider emerges from the scenery. Step too close to this incredibly detailed model and the room lighting will flicker in unison with the crashing sound and vision of lightening – at which time the model funnel-web dramatically springs to life – rearing up in a menacing and frightening manner, sending nervy visitors in the opposite direction.
Numerous interactive display components demonstrate the humorous side of Australian spiders – and the almost hysterical attitude many Australians have for them. The wolf spider display offers no pretense of educational value when it asks the question: Why the name ‘wolf’ spider?. Upon pressing the ‘answer’ button, a chilling howl from a lonely timber wolf permeates the room, while the answer panel below the button lights to reveal: ‘We have no idea…”.
No ‘spiderism’ is safe in Spider World and the ‘Incey Wincey Spider’ nursery rhyme takes a beating in an animated portrayal of poor Incey, who, true to form, is alternately flushed down the proverbial drain-pipe to the tune of “Down came the rain, which washed the spider out…”, only to be yanked back up the drain when “Up came the sun…”
Predominating a corner of the exhibition, a large viewing window reveals Tarantulaville. Behind the bullet-proof plate glass resides a large collection of giant tarantulas and scorpions from the tropics of Asia, Africa and South America. These are kept under the strict control of the Australian Quarantine Service, in perpetual high security conditions, presenting the only opportunity in Australia to view live tarantulas.
Most of the specimens were generously donated from the Memphis Zoo in USA; others were former research subjects, kindly provided by the Australian Museum in Sydney. All of the xxx species maintained in Tarantulaville are represented by single sex specimens only (females) – in accordance with the non-breeding agreement imposed as a prerequisite to their importation. The quarantine and non-breeding conditions reflect government concerns about the possible invasion of the Australian countryside by non-native spiders and scorpions, or the possible spread of spider-diseases and parasites. Species that can be seen at Tarantulaville include include the ‘Brazilian black’, and ‘Mexican red-kneed’ tarantulas, as well as the world’s largest living spider, the ‘Goliath bird-eater’!
Funnel-web Spider Laboratory
The Australian Reptile Park has long been associated with the production of funnel-web spider venoms as required in the development and production of antivenoms at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (now called CSL Limited) in Melbourne. From within Spider World, a large viewing window allows visitors to view the Funnel-web spider laboratory, where many hundred specimens are maintained in individual jars. The spider keeper can often be observed ‘milking’ Sydney funnel-web spiders of their incredibly toxic venom.
Prior to the first availability of the antivenom in 1980, bite victims faced an uncertain outcome, and deaths were common in cases of severe envenomation. Since the advent of the antivenom however, there have been no further deaths attributed to bites from this – the world’s deadliest spider.
Through a bullet-proof glass window in Spider World, visitors can view the high security quarantine conditions enforced by AQIS, in Australia’s only exhibition of giant tarantulas and scorpions. Spider Keepers can be viewed from time to time working within the facility and the daily 1.30pm feeding is a popular event with visitors!
The funnel-web spider-milking lab is visible through a large viewing window in Spider World where visitors can often see feeding or venom extraction from any of the 500 specimens, at other times a PowerPoint presentation is provided.
A Fresh Approach
The Reptile Park has provided a fresh approach to interactive exhibits from quite funny ‘push the button and something happens’ type exhibits, to larger-scale animatronic responses to approaching visitors (e.g. the Incey Wincey Spider really does get washed down the drain).
The Spider World theme humorously looks at the Aussie tradition of spider loathing. Set in the quintessential Australian backyard (and viewed from a Honey I Shrunk the Kids perspective) high-tech interactive exhibits and giant three-metre high animated spiders spoof spider paranoia. From the send-up of Spiderman, to the recreation of an outdoor dunny (infested with ridiculously over-sized red-back spiders and a background musical rendition of Slim Dusty’s classic Red-back on the Toilet Seat) … Spider World is seriously funny.