Zoo program beats spider phobias
A desensitisation course designed to help people overcome their fear of spiders seems to have legs, writes Linda Vergnani
DEBORAH Ford was a confirmed arachnophobe even back in her native Yorkshire, where the biggest house spiders would probably be lunch for an Australian blowfly, not the other way around.
After moving to Australia five years ago, Ford was so unprepared for the supersized eight-legged locals that she once had to be carried bodily out of a work tearoom by her boss after the sight of a huntsman on the wall had her rooted to the spot in fear.
A general manager in a radio and broadcasting equipment company, Ford says she ‘‘ couldn’t look at photos, let alone be in the room’’ with a spider, and went into ‘‘ panic mode’’ when confrontations did occur.
But plenty of home-grown Australians share Ford’s terror of spiders, which is why Sydney’s Taronga Zoo runs a desensitisation course designed to help people overcome it.
Held every few months according to demand, the program is certainly tapping a need: some of those who have taken the trouble to turn up for the four-hour course have found themselves getting cold feet, and have had to be coaxed into the lecture theatre. Others, once inside, have screamed and cowered behind chairs.
People come from across Australia hoping the Fearless at Taronga program will rid them of their fear of spiders — a fear that, as many an arachnophobe can attest, can be far out of proportion to the bite that most spiders can inflict. One woman attending the course said she did not dare enter her own carport at night, for fear a spider would be lurking there; another jumped out of the driving seat of a moving car in a bid to escape.
Taronga’s course costs $250 a head, but not only is it popular, it also seems to be effective. Course organiser Warrick Angus says more than 150 people have been through it in the two years it has been running, and all but two have been cured of their arachnophobia.
In Ford’s case, at the end of the four-hour course she was able to catch a huntsman, and even hold one.
Angus, an enthusiastic young scientist, successfully overcame his own acute fear of spiders over a 10-year period, before organising the course. He says: ‘‘ People come to the course and four hours later they leave with a whole new life. It’s a most liberating thing.’’
The Fearless at Taronga program dismantles people’s fears by teaching them about spiders — including their many good qualities — and combats phobias with hypnotherapy and ‘‘ mind exercises’’.
Alistair Horscroft, a behavioural change consultant who teaches the mind training techniques, says some of the course participants have previously consulted psychiatrists and psychotherapists without success.
After finishing the Taronga course, one woman burst into tears and admitted she had once been so startled at spotting a spider that a ‘‘ cup of boiling water flew out of her hand’’, scalding her two-year-old daughter.
The participants who turned up for the zoo’s most recent course, held one Saturday earlier this month, comprised 14 women and a lone man, accompanying his nervous partner.
Rush Bin Omar, a security guard who works at a diamond mine in Kununurra in Western Australia, describes how when she sees a spider she will ‘‘ run a mile, scream and freak out and cannot go near the spot for a month’’. Sydney mathematics teacher Melissa Silveri says fear of spiders makes it impossible for her to drive into her carport at night.
Judy Jefferies, who runs a building business with her husband on the Gold Coast, says the phobia ‘‘ ruins my life’’ and she often feels compelled to search rooms for spiders.
At the outset of the course, participants describe what frightens them — the hairiness, the sudden movement, the size of the spiders. ‘‘ It’s the whole package — disgusting,’’ says one woman.
No one mentions venom, but Angus informs them Australia has the world’s most venomous spider: the Sydney funnel web. He says 99 per cent of spiders are venomous, but reassures his audience that most spiders only bite in self-defence.
‘‘ We owe our lives to spiders,’’ Angus tells them. ‘‘ They eat over 90 per cent of all the insects in the world.’’ He paints a picture of a spiderless universe, overrun by mosquitoes and other pests. He gives fascinating facts about spiders — like how the hairs on their legs are designed to pick up the vibrations of prey, the air temperature and humidity.
Horscroft, who has presented a British TV series about overcoming phobias, tells the group he is fascinated that ‘‘ people can’t live a normal life because of a tiny, hairy thing. The main idea is to get you back to a place of rationality, of control, of calm, so that you just behave normally around these things.’’
He tells the group that it is the meaning someone attaches to a spider, rather than the creature itself, which causes a phobia. He teaches a behavioural modification technique called neuro-linguistic programming, that allows participants to dissociate themselves from their reactions to spiders. The final touch is a hypnotherapy session, during which Horscroft tells the trainees that letting go of a phobia is as easy as loosening a grip on a pen and allowing it to drop.
The women seem more relaxed. Now they need to demonstrate they have conquered their fear by holding a large hairy spider and by capturing and releasing a huntsman.
When the participants emerge from the lecture theatre, the foyer is full of keepers holding spiders. The first hurdle is to hold a jar containing a live spider. There is a funnel web crouched in one jar and a sleek redback in another. Then there is a table with dead spiders — hairy, dead spiders that when stroked, turn out to be soft as velvet.
The live spiders that need to be handled or caught are the final challenge. Confronted by this arachnophobe’s nightmare, several women weep.
Quietly, Horscroft and two assistants begin calming and counselling the individuals.
Each participant goes at her own pace. A young zookeeper is successfully persuading individuals to handle a pale huntsman, that constantly scurries over his hands.
Another keeper releases a larger huntsman on the carpet and demonstrates how to capture it, using an upturned ice-cream container and a piece of cardboard. The spider is meant to be released safely. Jefferies says catching the huntsman was ‘‘ horrible. I can’t believe I did it’’.
Angus is holding a furry tarantula with a golf ball-sized abdomen and long fangs. It minces over his hand, making the women around him wince and shudder. One closes her eyes and turns away, unable to watch. ‘‘
She’s like a fluffy puppy with eight legs,’’ says Angus. Tracey Cunningham, an insurance underwriter, is among those who step forward to feel its back. Gradually Angus allows the spider to move onto Cunningham’s hand. ‘‘ She has two tiny little claws that you might feel.’’ Cunningham has her eyes squeezed shut. Then she opens them and squints at the creature. ‘‘ She’s very frightened. She won’t run up your arm,’’ Angus reassures her.
When Angus has taken the spider back, Cunningham says while she’s done hypnosis before, ‘‘ it’s never worked for my phobia. I just felt very relaxed there’’.Finally it is the turn of Felicity Doran, who flew up from Launceston for the course. The middle-aged woman has been petrified of spiders ever since her teenage son threw a huntsman onto her shoulder. ‘‘ It’s got worse and worse over the years. I’ve jumped out of the driving seat of a moving car trying to escape one.’’
Trembling, Doran allows the tarantula into her hand, and astonishes those around her by saying the spider ‘‘ feels so soft, just like a little mouse’’. Later she says: ‘‘ I can’t believe I was able to do that. She felt like a little fairy. I feel absolutely elated, really elated.’’
There are bouts of clapping all over the room. Like all the others, teacher Melissa Silviera has caught the spider on the carpet and allowed the pale huntsman to scuttle over her hand. She wants to touch the tarantula again. ‘‘ I’m amazed. I’ve just got to do it again before I go because it’s taken the hysteria out of it.’’
Even Ford admits she has begun to be enchanted by spiders. ‘‘ The webs are so beautiful. I didn’t know before I heard Warrick that spiders are still one of the strangest things on earth.’’ Most remarkably, she allowed a massive tarantula to walk over her open palm. ‘‘ Until the day I die that probably be my biggest achievement ever.’’ The next Fearless at Taronga program will be held in September. Email email@example.com or telephone 02 9978 4659 for details
Transformed: Deborah Ford at ease with a spider. Once, merely the sight of one froze her with terror