Fear Factor II: Del Hughes goes where the wild things are
We’re surrounded by hordes of excited children, Tim is rolling his eyes and muttering darkly that he ‘knew it would be just for kids’ and I’m guessing I missed that crucial detail when I chanced upon this event on Facebook.
But I don’t let it put me off because I’ve been gearing up for this all week and I’m not backing out. Plus, the seductive smells of proper coffee and homemade cakes are enough to keep us happy whilst the wonderful Gemma tries to organise a one-to-one with Dylan.
We’re at Dewkes of Sketty, a pet shop and café combo, that offer tempting treats for humans and pooches alike. It’s basically a Costa for canines, but with a much cosier vibe and, after seeing one four-legged cutie demolishing a ‘doggy-chino’ (topped stylishly with a swirl of cream and a gravy bone) I’ll definitely be bringing my two for a visit – once their psycho-puppyhood is behind them and they can abide by the Dewkes ‘House Rules.’
Tim has just got started on his flat white when Gemma reappears, says it’s all sorted, and if we can wait ten minutes for the kids’ group to finish, she’ll take us up to meet him.
Fabulous! I’m delighted and terrified in equal measure. . . no, scrap that. Now that it’s happening, if I’m honest, it’s more like 10% delight, 90% terror.
My palms are suddenly clammy, there’s a tremor in my hands and I have to put down my coffee cup for fear of spilling it – think Keeping Up Appearances, when Elizabeth has tea at Hyacinth’s and you won’t be far off.
Sod the coffee! What I really need now is a calming cider, but in the absence of human alcohol, I might have to give their ‘dog wine’ a whirl – and pop a diazepam, or two.
Some weeks ago I wrote an article about facing fears and phobias, triggered by that oft-quoted phrase, ‘Do something that scares you each day.’
Attempting this on a daily basis was somewhat ambitious – I’m not frightened of enough things to manage three hundred plus per annum. So I changed it to a two-a-month kinda deal and have managed to stick with the program thus far.
And, now that autumn is upon us, it seems fitting that today I’m going to come face to face with, literally, my biggest bête noire. You see, much as I love this season ‘of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, it’s also the season of sneaky incursions, with homes invaded by eight-legged devils who scuttle, spikily, across floors, walls and ceilings, and fill me with a constant dread.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a horror of spiders and I can even pinpoint the exact moment it began. I was six, it was autumn (obviously) and Dad had just scooped up a very large specimen that was hunkered down behind the hostess trolley.
We had our ‘Donkey’ routine (that’s what we called the big ones) down to a fine art; I’d open the back door, Dad would put the leggy intruder outside and then we’d both wag a finger at it while singing ‘Mr Spider go away/and don’t come back another day.’ (I dunno, so don’t even ask.)
But, that night, Dad didn’t reach the back door. Instead, with a sudden ‘Ow’, he dropped the spider (which hot-footed it into the curtains) and said the four words that fuelled my phobia into being – ‘The bastard bit me!’ What!? They have teeth!? Remember, I was only six.
Anyway, since starting the ‘Facing Fears’ project, I have managed to stick to my resolution of co-existing with arachnids – rather than crushing them under heavy books and getting Tim to hoover up the remains.
And it’s not all spiders that freak me out. I’m not so bothered by those flimsy, brownish ones that hang out in corners doing not very much at all. And small ones – £2 coin-sized or less – are just about acceptable too. Daddy-Long-Legs don’t even count.
But those giant donkeys, which appear with such frightful frequency this time of year. . . well, they’re another matter entirely. So, if I was to continue with my ‘live and let live’ commitment, I needed urgent help.
Enter Animal Cwtch, a mobile ‘animal encounters’ company, with a menagerie of fluffy, feathery and scaly pets, which you are very welcome to meet. And that was why I was there – to meet, and maybe hold (Eek!), Dylan, a Tliltocatl albopilosus, aka curly-haired tarantula.
As immersion therapy goes, this was hardcore.
But Dylan actually sounded perfect for the job because, in my mind, anything furry, or ‘curly-haired’ couldn’t be that scary, could it?
I should also add that my thinking was heavily influenced by the 1970s kids’ programmes I grew up with, in particular ‘Paperplay’, which featured two high-vis ‘spiders’ called Itsy and Bitsy, who happily helped a smiley lady with her arts and crafts. And it was these squeaky sweethearts that informed the mental image I had of Dylan.
I was in for quite a shock.
Woman on the edge
Gemma led us upstairs to the activity room and introduced us to Animal Cwtch’s Jo and Kevin, who were terrifically supportive of what I was aiming to do, and brimming with knowledge about their much loved pets.
They started explaining a little about the various animals but, sorry to say, I wasn’t listening; my full attention was on the glass boxes which I incessantly, and anxiously, scanned for signs of Dylan.
Kevin, immediately realising I was a woman on the edge, decided to ease me in gently, so he sat me down and handed me a guinea pig called Dusty. Lush.
She was a tricolour fluff-ball with the softest fur and sweetest nature, and after a few minutes of cuddling, I did feel slightly less stressed and a tad more in control of myself. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last.
As Jo returned Dusty to her cage, Kevin reached into a glass box that I’d thought was empty of everything except leaves, and I got my first look at Dylan and . . . No. Oh no! Mission aborted!
Dylan was nothing like Itsy or Bitsy – in fact, he was their polar opposite.
He was squat and monstrous, with menace emanating from him with each languid leg movement, and I could barely watch as Kevin eased him out of the box.
I started sweating and, for once, this it was no menopausal flush. Nope, this was pure, unadulterated terror. My whole body was trembling, and if I hadn’t already been sitting down, I know my legs would have gone from under me. I was truly petrified.
Kevin clocked that I was entering full-on fight/flight mode, so quickly began imparting information about Dylan which he though might allay my, very evident, fears.
Curly-haired tarantulas are, apparently, the best ‘starter spider’ for arachnophobes due to their docile nature and a bite less painful than a bee sting.
They are also only interested in attacking things that are much smaller than themselves.
Thanks Kev, but words like ‘bite’ and ‘attack’ were causing spikes of adrenalin to course through me and I felt my eyes fill with tears.
This was clearly a terrible idea and I couldn’t go through with it!
But, by this time, I had a small audience; Kevin and Jo, Gemma, James (the owner) and several other staff members, not to mention Tim, who seemed to be enjoying my discomfort just a little too much.
It was apparent to everyone that I was on the verge of chickening out. But then Kevin suggested I should watch him handling Dylan first – so I could get more accustomed to his movements, and average velocity.
This was a surprisingly good idea because that’s the biggest problem I have with spiders – the startling speed of the scurry, combined with the ability to move in any direction at pace.
I remember my dad telling me a spidery fact years ago that’s stuck with me ever since; how, if you scaled a spider up to the size of a man (Shudder!), in a 100m sprint, you could give the man an 80m head start, and still the spider would win. With hindsight, it’s no wonder I evolved into an arachnophobe. . . thanks for that, Dad!
So, back to Dylan. I peeped through splayed fingers as he slowly ambled across Kevin’s palms before grinding to a halt. In fairness, as spiders go, he did seem pretty chilled – though, for me, he was still absolutely chilling.
And then it was my turn. Was I going to do this? Apparently yes, I was!
Another phobia of mine, (one I have managed to overcome), was the fear of injections, or any procedure that involved needles. I was completely incapable of looking when one pierced my skin.
But that long-gone reaction kicked in as soon as Kevin began his approach to place Dylan carefully on my bare arm.
I turned my head and squeezed my eyes shut, powerless to even glance in that direction, despite sympathetic encouragement from my little audience and calls of, ‘Look at him, he’s gorgeous.’
At first, I couldn’t feel anything at all – no huge, hairy feet thumping across my skin, no sinister weight upon my arm.
I had to ask if Dylan was actually on me because, ‘No, I can’t look. Not yet.’
And I’m sure that Tim, who was videoing the experience, thought he was being helpful (Bollocks, did he!) by interjecting with, ‘You will do – he’s getting up to your face’, a statement which caused some laughter. I began to hyperventilate.
It took time, quite. . . a. . . lot. . . of. . . time. . . (so apologies to those parents and kids who were patiently waiting downstairs for their own animal encounters) but eventually I managed to, not only look at Dylan’s fat, black body, but also to move him closer to my face so I could see his eight beady eyes.
But when he began moving his pedipalps – the two mini-leg appendages spiders have on their heads which they use to find food – I decided I’d had enough desensitisation for one day.
With a relieved exhale, I passed him back to Kevin and got a round of applause from my spectators. And breathe, Del! Phew!
Giddy with achievement, I happily posed for photos with Leia, the Royal Python, which was a piece of cake, though Jo said that it’s snakes that people have the most problem with.
Frankly, I envy them that phobia – I mean, how often does one of those slither out from under your sofa?
So, am I glad I did it? Yes, deffo. In fact I still can’t believe it’s me in those photos, with that solid lump of spider sitting on my arm.
Has doing it helped me master my fear of ‘normal’ spiders? Yes, to some extent – though I remain hyper-vigilant. I still shake out the duvet and pillows each night, ever since a friend mentioned how a donkey had once run across her face when she was falling asleep.
Screeeeeam! Now that is the stuff of nightmares.
And, speaking of nightmares, I’m fifty-three next month (Sigh) and, instead of the usual pub get-together, I’m seriously considering booking in at Dewkes for an Animal Cwtch birthday party.
They’re advertised as ‘for children’, but I wonder if being a big-kid-at-heart counts too? (Plus, I think I’d really, really enjoy seeing just how well Tim would cope when he’s the one up close and personal with the delightful Dylan. LOL!)
Dewkes of Sketty, (and Mumbles) stock a wide range of pet products as well as coffee and treats for you and your pooch. They also host a range of events throughout the year and can organise children’s parties in conjunction with their Animal Cwtch partner. Find out more at here or via their Facebook page.
Animal Cwtch is a family run ‘animal encounter’ business. They can take their menagerie of animals to visit care homes, groups such as scouts, brownies and youth clubs, and to schools and nurseries. They also do parties and private events. Find out more here or via their Facebook page
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