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CREEP SHOW L.A. ZOO'S NEWEST EXHIBIT GIVES VISITORS A LEG UP ON SPIDERS.

Byline: Melissa Heckscher

Staff Writer

Six-year-old Inglewood resident Thaddeus Laffite isn't afraid of spiders.

Well ... uh ... not really, anyway.

"I'm sort of scared," he says, wide-eyed but clearly enamored as he gazes into a small aquarium at the Los Angeles Zoo. A spindly, nickel-size spider sits suspended in a thick cottony web just inches from his face.

"I'm scared of small spiders because you can't see them," he explains.

Thankfully, Thaddeus has no problem seeing the spiders here. The zoo's newest exhibit, "Spider City," gives visitors an up-close and personal look at the animal kingdom's eight-legged residents.

The exhibit, housed in the zoo's former koala house (the koalas are now in an outdoor enclosure), features 26 species of spiders. They range from the big and hairy -- such as the Goliath Bird-Eater tarantula, the world's biggest spider with a leg span of nearly 12 inches -- to the small and prickly, including the silk-spinning Golden Orb Weaver.

In an effort to echo the cartoonish allure first spun by popular culture's most talked-about spider of all, Peter Parker's alter ego Spider-Man, the Spider City exhibit is designed to resemble a comic book.

Visitors enter through a dark hallway lined with colorful posters featuring various creepy-crawlers. As they head further inside, the darkened room is illuminated by the glow of aquariums, some of them furnished with miniature furniture or scenery.

"We wanted to give people the feeling that they're walking into a comic book," said Kirsten Perez, the zoo's director of education.

"Spider City is a world that co-exists parallel to our own. It's one we don't usually look at, but it's one that's inhabited by spiders."

Because any good superhero needs a catchy moniker, all of Spider City's

residents have a nickname.

The black widow, for instance, has been dubbed "The Murderess" for her venomous, albeit exaggerated, reputation. (Despite popular belief, black widows don't always kill their mates.)

Besides the Goliath spider, which takes up at least a quarter of its small glass home, highlights of the exhibit include various tarantulas, a brown recluse spider, the black widow and its lesser-known cousin, the brown widow.

Spiders were provided by several breeders. Los Angeles bug wrangler Steven Kutcher, who supplied the spiders for the first two Spider-Man films as well as the movie "Arachnophobia," served as a consultant.

Not coincidentally, the exhibit's May 3 opening was timed to coincide with the release of "Spider-Man 3." But aside from that -- and an opening day that brought in Spidey himself -- there is no cross-marketing between the two enterprises.

"We thought, 'Wouldn't it be really neat to build on the excitement that was being generated around a major film that was coming out,' " Perez said. " 'Spider-Man 3' was sort of a no-brainer."

The exhibit, which wasn't affected by the recent Griffith Park fire, also fills a hole left when the zoo's reptile house was torn down to make way for the soon-to-open elephant exhibit. Most of the reptiles are currently off exhibit.

"We wanted to give people some small, creepy-crawler things to look at," Perez said, "and so 'Spiders' was born."

When Spider City closes Oct. 31 (assuming it's not extended), the exhibit may travel to other zoos, said zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs.

"There are at least two other zoos that are interested," he said.

Of course, those zoos aren't guaranteed another "Spider-Man" sequel to stir up some spider-mania.

But no matter. Spiders will remain a part of our lives no matter what happens to the exhibit.

In fact, Perez said, there's an old adage that claims you're never more than 3 feet from a spider, even in a city such as L.A.

That said, the zoo has something going for it -- at least here they're all in cages.

SPIDER CITY AT THE L.A. ZOO

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Oct. 31.

Where: 5333 Zoo Drive, in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.

Admission: Spider City is free with zoo admission of $10 for adults and $5 for children 2 to 12.

Information: 323-644-4200 or www.lazoo.org.

Some residents of Spider City

Common Funnel Web spider

Small- to medium-size spider named after its characteristic funnel-shaped web.

Sneaky hunter: The funnel spider waits in the funnel and rushes out when an insect lands in the web. It then injects fast-acting venom and, within a few seconds, drags the prey back into the safety of its funnel.

Brazilian White Knee spider

Large tarantula named after the white patterns on its legs.

Hairy defenses: When disturbed, a Brazilian Whiteknee spider flicks airborne hairs that sting. Nonetheless, they're popular pets.

Wolf spider

Medium-size spider whose method of hunting is to run down its prey (hence its name).

Good mothers: The female wolf spider produces an egg sac, which she attaches to her abdomen. When the spiderlings are developed, she opens the egg sac wall and the spiderlings climb on to her abdomen, where they hang onto her hairs. With about 100 babies to a sac, there can be several layers of spiderlings clinging to the mother. The young stay there for about a week before they disperse.

Arachnid trivia

There are about 35,000 named species of spiders worldwide, and most scientists believe there are still many more to be identified.

A female tarantula generally lives up to 20 years; a male lives about half that.

Contrary to popular belief, the female black widow spider rarely kills her mate (although it does happen). As for humans, according to the California Poison Control System, no one in the United States has died from a black widow spider bite in more than 10 years.

Fatal spider bites are rare, even when involving the most venomous spiders. Severity of a bite depends on the amount of venom injected, the health and allergies of the person bitten, the age of the victim (small children and the elderly are more vulnerable) and the site of the bite.

Scientists are using spider venom to develop environmentally friendly pesticides as well as medicines.

There are few -- if any -- brown recluse spiders in California. According to www.buginfo.com, there have been only about a half-dozen California brown recluse sightings in 40 years, and each of those were spiders that had hitch-hiked in with packaging, furniture, etc. Nonetheless, California residents report the highest number of suspected brown recluse bites of any state in the country.

-- M.H.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) web masters

Eensy weensy or hairy and scary, spiders take center stage at L.A. Zoo's new exhibit

(2 -- color) Alejandra Garcia seizes a chance to be a webbed wonder at Spider City. The exhibit runs through Oct. 31.

(3 -- color) Three wide-eyed girls stare at the venomous spiders at L.A. Zoo's Spider City. The exhibit is designed to resemble a comic book, a la "Spider-Man." All the inhabitants have catchy nicknames. For example, the black widow spider is called "The Murderess," although the arachnid doesn't always kill its mate.

Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer

(4 -- color) no caption (spider)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 24, 2007
Words:1172
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