Tale of the Haunted Cactus

David L. Eppele from Arizona Cactus & Succulent Research, Inc., notes urgently: "Neither of the cactus stories is true. These stories have been going around for years. Tarantulas are not deadly and do not make their homes in Saguaros or any other tree. Tarantulas live underground. The site is nice and there are some humorous stories ... but please, take down the Cactus story. It never, ever happened."

Jean Rice -- 30 January 1998

A neighbor of ours had designed their new home. Two weeks before the move-in date, they headed for the southwest on a vacation/home-decorating excursion. They purchased pottery, lawn ornaments, so much stuff that they had to rent a U-Haul to get it all home. On their last day of vacation, they camped at a tourist trap that sold potted saguaro cacti. Their new home has a large entryway, and they had planned to put a small tree there. As their home was now destined to have southwest decor, they chose a large cactus specimen and added it to their load.

Their new house was ready for move-in when they arrived home and began to decorate their house. I admit, the combination of the house design and decor was nice, and the saguaro was spectacular.

A few weeks later they held a housewarming. As the party got into full swing, a fierce thunderstorm caused a power outage. We lit candles to push back the darkness, and with 38 jovial people in the house, it became a lark. The lightning was spectacular. We snuffed the candles out to enjoy the storm. Then someone screamed and pointed at the saguaro. In the lightning it appeared to have come to life, the skin squirming and writhing. Several people turned on their flashlights and found it was no trick of the lightning. The saguaro was moving. We quickly decided we'd rather wait out the storm in our cars.

Our neighbors called the police, who arrived promptly, probably expecting to make some drug arrests. The police barely got the door open when they slammed it shut again. I never saw cops move so fast. They taped off the place and called an exterminator and animal control.

It turned out tarantula lay their eggs in hollows in cacti or trees, with a dead small animal as food. The baby spiders are sealed in the hollow until their food is gone, when they break out of their nursery and swarm the first living thing they find. They have been known to kill horses. The saguaro our neighbors brought home had one such nest, and when the police opened the door they saw the entry literally covered with baby tarantulas. Baby tarantula venom is up to 5 times more potent than that of adults. Had our neighbors been home asleep when they ran out of food, they may have been killed.

The moral of this story? Do not bring wild desert saguaro into your home!

Another spidery cactus tale from Jason McClanahan

This story was told to me by a friend in the Marines who was stationed in Arizona. A man and his wife had just been transferred to the base and were adjusting to living so near the desert. One day the wife went into the desert, being somewhat a gardener, and dug up a large and attractive cactus to put it in their home. I don't remember the particular type of cactus. Weeks pass. They get the feeling that something weird is going on with the cactus. It occassionally looks like it's undulating. More time passes and the movement becomes more discernible. Eventually they get become really disturbed and call a local plant expert. They describe the cactus and its behavior, and the expert offers the following advice: "Get out of the house immediately. Do not attempt to take any of your belongings, just get out NOW!" So they go outside, and soon a group of exterminators arrives in biohazard suits and enter the house. The man and wife watch through the window, and as they are watching, the cactus essentially explodes and unleashes thousands of tarantulas all over the house, which the exterminators had to deal with. Apparently that particular type of cactus was a popular nesting place for tarantulas.

And now an interjection of reality. Judy Johnson points out: "These 'true' tales concerning the tarantulas in the cacti are versions of a well-known urban legend discussed by Jan Brunvand in "The Mexican Pet" (1986, ISBN 0-393-30542-2). Baby tarantulas are not more venomous than their parents, and, in fact, tarantulas are not particularly venomous to humans. While some African tarantulas may cause illness, no one has ever died from a tarantula bite. The entire egg cocoon of a tarantula is about the size of a cotton ball, and about as heavy, and contains a few hundred eggs. Even thousands of newly hatched tarantulas would be incapable of causing movement in a cactus. Female tarantulas do not leave their eggs cocoons, they keep them within their burrows, where they can give them tender, loving care. No cactus (or any desert plant)is commonly used by tarantulas to deposit their eggs. Furthermore, tarantulas are not capable of killing horses."

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