Pet tarantulas are nothing like their B-movie counterparts: Their bites are rarely fatal; they're generally more afraid of you than you are of them; and they certainly aren't the size of three-story buildings (try four inches wide, on average). But what makes them less blood-curdling also makes them stellar pets. They're remarkably intelligent and surprisingly docile once you get past those prickly exteriors. Craving a not-so-creepy crawler to call your own? First, make sure you aren't breaking any laws: The leggy pets are legal in the District, but they're banned in certain Maryland and Virginia counties (like Fairfax). Check with your local animal control officials to get the scoop. Once you've settled that, here's how to get started.
1Go for the girls
Female spiders generally make better pets, as they can live to be as old as 30, while males may only make it a few years. Males also tend to be feistier, which can make them harder to handle. "In the wild, they spend their lives looking for a mate," says Nathan Erwin, the manager of the Insect Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History. "As pets, they're still more active and wander a lot more."
2Know your species
Looking for an eight-legged friend at your average pet store can be confusing: There are more than 850 species of tarantula, with varying care guidelines -- but many big stores don't bother to distinguish between them. Therefore, it's important to find a reputable dealer who knows his spiders, says Robert Breene, an arachnologist and editor for the American Tarantula Society (www.atshq.org), an organization founded in 1991 for lovers of the furry arthropods. You can find links to tarantula merchants at the society's Web site (yes, spiders can be shipped by mail). Good sellers should be able to tell you your spider's sex and age, and point you toward a species that's tamer and easier to care for, such as the Chilean Rose (Grammostola gala) and Mexican Redknee (Brachypelma smithi) varieties.
3Feed Spidey right
Predators at heart, tarantulas crave live food. Crickets, fruit flies and even mice are faves, and are widely available at pet stores. Stanley and Marguerite Schultz, authors of "The Tarantula Keeper's Guide" (Barron's Educational Series, $14.95), recommend six to eight crickets a month to keep the average tarantula happy and full. The spiders also need fresh water, preferably in small, low-lying bowls; the cap from a pill bottle makes a handy vessel.
4Help her feel at home
Tarantulas aren't picky about their living quarters, so you don't need fancy or even very large containers for them. In most cases, a lidded aquarium or even a plastic shoebox with airholes will do; just make sure that the holes are smaller than your pet and that the top stays on tight. Create an environment that suits the species: Tree-dwelling tarantulas may require a taller home, while burrowers need a deep layer of soil.
5Speak her language
Tarantulas have relatively large brains, according to Breene -- the trick is figuring out what they're thinking. If your tarantula curls its legs underneath it, it's telling you that it's sick. Front two legs raised in the air? Back off. Heed such warnings and you'll avoid getting bitten; tarantula bites shouldn't kill you, but they can hurt and might cause dangerous allergic reactions. The secret to outsmarting the sting is learning proper handling. Remove your pet from its home by prodding it gently with an object like a pencil into a new container, rather than lunging at it with your hands. And remember to give your spider alone time. Tarantulas are wild animals, and though they can become used to handling, more often than not, they prefer not to be bugged.