By Greg Johnson, Cowboy State Daily
Twilight Sparkle is by far Emmalynn Johnson’s favorite.
She’s small, energetic and very colorful – which is why the Rawlins 4-year-old decided on Twilight Sparkle when naming her.
Emmalynn’s father smiles as he coaxes Twilight Sparkle out, her eight hairy legs skittering around a tiny terrarium to perch atop the burrow she’s built.
“This is by far the most colorful tarantula we have here,” said KeeGan Johnson standing in front of a glass-doored cabinet in the family’s “spider room.”
More Than A Hobby
While Twilight Sparkle is a favorite of his young children, the Rawlins firefighter said he usually doesn’t name any of the dozens of tarantulas and jumping spiders he breeds and sells online.
Twilight Sparkle is better known as a candy shop spider, or more formally typhochlaena seladonia, an extremely rare and endangered tarantula found in parts of the Brazilian rainforest.
“I’ve always been into bugs and frogs and anything I could catch when I was growing up,” Johnson told Cowboy State Daily. “I think it was my eighth grade year when I ended up stumbling across a video of this really beautiful tarantula.”
That started what’s become a passion for all things tarantula.
KeeGan has studied the dozens of species and can pronounce their Latin names with ease: poecilotheria subfusca, morposutogry balfouri and cyriocosmus elegens to name a few.
“I started watching this guy’s videos and he was pronouncing all the Latin names for the,” he said. “I was thinking that’s super cool, and the tarantulas he had were all super-colorful and all sorts of different sizes and body types.”
Now KeeGan and his wife Michaela not only keep tarantulas as pets, they’ve begun breeding and selling them.
‘My Biggest Phobia’
Today, they make a super Wyoming spider team. But that wasn’t the case to start.
“When we first got together, KeeGan said that his favorite things he wanted to get into was tarantulas,” Michaela said. “And that, at the time, was my biggest phobia.
“I remember thinking that of all the men on this earth, I had to pick the one that wanted specifically the one thing I’m most terrified of.”
But marriage is about compromise, right?
Michaela said she wanted to support her husband’s passion and made a deal with him: “I got something and he got the tarantula.”
When that first spider died soon after getting it, she’d turned the corner a bit on her arachnophobia.
“Seeing him have it and how happy he was about having it, I was like, ‘Well, I guess we can get another one,’” she said. “And then it just didn’t stop.”
His Business Has Legs
That’s when the collecting really began, which evolved into the Johnsons’ tarantula breeding business, Outhouse Oddities.
They connect with people all over the United States and have sold and shipped spiders as far away as Florida. It’s mostly an online business through their Facebook page and a message board for arachnophiles.
And yes, you can send tarantulas through the mail, KeeGan said. He usually ships overnight and uses crush-proof boxes equipped with either hot or cold packs, depending on the season so the spiderlings (or “lings” as he calls them) don’t die of cold or heat en route.
“They’re so small that temperatures really affect them,” he said.
The cost of a tarantula varies widely depending on species, breed and sex, KeeGan said. That’s because some species are more sought-after and females often live many times longer than males.
He’s raising about 15 species now in the back bedroom of his home, including some that are rare and endangered.
“I’ve been trying to breed (the endangered specimens) to preserve them because we can’t get them anymore,” he said.
Queen of the Cluster
While her husband has a very scientific take on their tarantulas, Michaela is the one who names them. And while she’s no longer scared of having dozens of tarantulas in her house, she’s also not a total arachnophile convert either.
“Not once did I think that a whole room in my house would be dedicated to spiders,” she said. “These in here are OK.
“But normal house spiders? If there’s a random house spider, that does freak me out. Some of the tarantulas scare me, but it depends on. What their personality is.”
Although she’s fine with having the tarantulas, Michaela will only hold one, her own personal pet Mazarin.
The morposutogry balfouri, or blue baboon, tarantula is 5 years old and about the size of Michaela’s palm. She’s docile enough and is easily handled.
“That’s my spider,” she said, adding that Mazarin “is just the biggest old sweetheart.”
Respect, Don’t Fear
While spiders are often depicted as malevolent monsters by movie-makers who capitalize on humans’ fears of arachnids, KeeGan said there’s really no reason to fear them – even giants like some species of tarantula.
“Everybody thinks that they’re, like, out to get them,” he said. “But in reality, they’re scared of you. They’re definitely more afraid than you are. Most of them are pretty decent on tolerating a lot of things. They’re teddy bears.”
That said, it’s still not a good idea to antagonize a tarantula.
“Some just have a shorter fuse than others,” KeeGan said. “Some of them have very, very bad reputations, but I don’t disturb them and I don’t try to antagonize them.
“There are some spicy ones out there, and for the most part, they’re just being defensive, but some of them have shorter fuses.”
The Hollywood Treatment
About those Hollywood spiders, KeeGan said he finds himself analyzing them, especially the tarantulas, like Aragog from the “Harry Potter” franchise and the tarantula in “Home Alone.”
Then there’s Shelob, the giant spider that tries to eat Frodo and Sam on their way into Mordor in “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” KeeGan said it’s not really a spider at all.
While a critical of Hollywood spiders, there’s one arachno-friendly fantasy treatment he’s a big fan of.
“I love Spider-Man!” he said. “It’s just a beautiful concept. It would be nice to have some super strength and be able to shoot webs and climb walls.”
As long as KeeGan sticks to his tarantulas and jumping spiders, Michaela is 100% supportive of her husband’s passion and budding business.
“But if he caught a black widow outside, I would NOT be OK with that,” she said.
Michaela may not still be a total convert to all things with eight legs, her children seem to be. Along with Emmalynn and her favorite Twilight Sparkle, 2-year-old Ryleigh also has no fear, wanting to hold and handle anything her daddy does.
That’s OK for the most part, KeeGan said, shutting the door so she wouldn’t get too close to the theraphosa apophysis.
To the layperson, that’s his pinkfoot goliath tarantula, which can grow to have legs as long as 13 inches. While KeeGan’s is still relatively small – about the size of his open hand – it seems docile this day, content to just sit on top of its burrow.