Zoo pro­gram beats spi­der pho­bias

A de­sen­si­ti­sa­tion course de­signed to help peo­ple over­come their fear of spi­ders seems to have legs, writes Linda Vergnani

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

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 fear­less@zoo.nsw.gov.au or tele­phone 02 9978 4659 for de­tails

Pic­ture: James Croucher

Trans­formed: Deb­o­rah Ford at ease with a spi­der. Once, merely the sight of one froze her with ter­ror

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