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‘Universal shock and awe’

Wade Harrell and Ollie Greer, co-owners of the Harrell House Bug Museum, scoop out the insides of a Goliath birdeater tarantula that they were mounting Thursday. The huge spider's fangs are three-quarters of an inch long.

Wade Harrell and Ollie Greer, co-owners of the Harrell House Bug Museum, scoop out the insides of a Goliath birdeater tarantula that they were mounting Thursday. The huge spider’s fangs are three-quarters of an inch long. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Brunnhilde lived a good, long life.

Her owner, Wade Harrell, estimates his Goliath birdeater tarantula was about 12 years old when she died last week of old age. He had her for about eight years, bringing her with him when he moved to Santa Fe. After opening the Harrell House Bug Museum at the DeVargas Center mall in 2013, she became a main attraction, he said.

But Brunnhilde wasn’t like her fellow spiders. With a legspan of more than 10 inches, she is “gargantuan.”

“Everything about this thing is supersized,” said Ollie Greer, an insect collector, and Harrell’s partner in the bug museum and science shop.

A final measurement done earlier this week from her left front leg to her right hind leg was 10.125 inches. At a weigh-in at the nearby post office, she came in at around 5.2 ounces. A local species of tarantula will typically weigh one ounce.

When she was alive, visitors were often taken aback at the sight of the rare eight-legged creature.

“One hundred percent, unanimous, universal shock and awe,” Greer said.

“Some people were just horrified,” Harrell added. “It’s the largest spider most people have ever seen in their lives.”

The museum owners – Harrell shows living specimens, Greer collects and mounts dead ones – plan to give Brunnhilde a “decades-long afterlife” in their newly expanded space. Brunnhilde will now be shown as a part of Greer’s bug collection, which currently features 5,000 mounted specimens. On Thursday, Greer dissected and pinned the giant spider to ready her for long-term display.

“Having this in my collection is a major badge of distinction,” Greer said. Harrell gave the specimen to him.

Greer said a tarantula like his is incredibly valuable, though he declined to provide an estimate.

Although she was named after a strong warrior queen in German legend, Brunnhilde’s species of tarantula – known scientifically as Theraphosa stirmi – is native to tropical South America. It is considered the largest spider in the world. The legspan record for a Goliath birdeater is 11 inches.

Greer has a male Goliath birdeater that has reached 10.5 inches, but nearly all of Brunnhilde’s other measurements – her abdomen and fangs, for example – are much larger. Even without a record legspan, he said, anything past 10 inches is a big deal in the world of arachnids.

The process of preserving the giant spider started out like a classic science class assignment. Wearing gloves to protect them from the tarantula’s toxic hairs, Greer and Harrell cut open her abdomen, and Greer removed what was largely a digestive system, fluids and fat tissue with a spoon and cotton swabs. It was the first time the duo had done anything like that for a bug’s pinning. With smaller creatures, the insides will typically dry out on their own.

Ollie Greer, co-owner of the Harrell House Bug Museum, pins a Goliath birdeater tarantula to a piece of styrofoam. The huge spider, which died recently, belonged to his business partner, Wade Harrell.

Ollie Greer, co-owner of the Harrell House Bug Museum, pins a Goliath birdeater tarantula to a piece of styrofoam. The huge spider, which died recently, belonged to his business partner, Wade Harrell.

Greer started the pinning process by securing the body onto foamboard with pins. Then he pinned the hind legs and spinneret, the spider’s silk-spinning organ. Greer worked his way up to her front legs, pedipalps, and her particularly large fangs. He estimated they are approximately three-quarters of an inch long, longer than the fangs on a cobra or rattlesnake.

“Oh yeah, baby, those are some monster fangs,” Greer said as he put them in place. In all, the spider was secured with about 75-80 pins, each placed carefully and sometimes after multiple tries to ensure the body parts were straight and symmetrical.

Rare acquisitions like Brunnhilde, Greer said, enhance his perception of the world around him.

“It just reinforces that the world is a very interesting place and that most of us don’t know about that,” Greer said, “unless you see these specimens pinned and arranged in my collection or in captivity with Wade.”

Brunnhilde will eventually be placed in a shadow box and hung on the wall. But for now, Greer has her in a display cabinet near the entrance of the museum’s location at DeVargas.

Museum expansion

Last April, Harrell House moved to its 4,000-square-foot space, sharing the former Hastings Entertainment location with Travelers Market. That store had to move to make room for the mall’s forthcoming bowling alley; its Facebook page indicates the owners hope to open this summer. The museum had to relocate due to the construction of a loading dock and the mall’s addition of an Office Depot.

Despite some disruption from the ongoing construction, Harrell and Greer said they like the change. The new space is roughly four times larger than the quirky museum’s former spot in the mall.

Cynthia DelBello of Santa Fe and her daughters Mia, 6, and Rosie, 2, look through the collection of mounted insects at the Harrell House Bug Museum on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Cynthia DelBello of Santa Fe and her daughters Mia, 6, and Rosie, 2, look through the collection of mounted insects at the Harrell House Bug Museum on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Greer said he’s been able to expand his “Crawlywood Collection” from about 2,500 to 5,000 specimens across the insect spectrum. Harrell said he’s also added several live animals and installed larger tanks for growing creatures. There are more scorpions, spiders and reptiles, including a nine-foot – and growing – reticulated python named “Tigger.” He also added a 200-gallon turtle tank.

Greer was also excited about being able to host larger groups, including a field trip of 80 students last week.

“We offer an experience that you just can’t find anywhere else,” Greer said.

This Asian water monitor lizard lives at the Harrell House Bug Museum in the DeVargas Center mall.

This Asian water monitor lizard lives at the Harrell House Bug Museum in the DeVargas Center mall.

He said they hope to attract educational and small-business grants from the city or state to continue growing. Greer said additional funding would allow him to expand his bug collection to 9,000 specimens and expand to 160 display cases. And he hopes to one day take the collection on tour to museums around the country.

“If we could get this to LA or New York, my collection would cause absolute pandemonium,” he said.

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