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September 7, 2006

In the News

The Town Dandy
Say what?

Short Stor

Who bit Wrigley?
Dunno, but it sure wasn't a recluse or a hobo

story & photo by HEIDI WALTERS

CAUTION: This story is about spiders. And a severely annoyed scientist. If you, or anyone in your family (like, for instance, Mom) has an extreme phobia of spiders (or annoyed scientists), DO NOT READ THIS.


OK. Our tale begins in the idyllic, tidy, beautifully landscaped Eureka backyard of Wrigley the blond pit bull terrier, where, on a recent waning summer afternoon, the sun shone and butterflies danced and Wrigley lounged at the feet of her male person, Rick Werner. Werner was talking about her, and she knew it. Her head drooped and her golden eyes -- woeful, watchful -- occasionally glanced sideways at the listening reporter. Maybe she even knew what he was talking about: the terrible day something bit her and she swelled up and almost died.

"It was June 17 -- the official day -- and she was out in the backyard," Werner, a sunny though skeptical fellow, recalled. "She was probably outside 15 or 20 minutes by herself -- she's an inside dog, primarily -- and then she came in limping. And she had a previous injury, so I thought it had gotten worse. She jumped up on the couch, and that's where she stayed till the next morning. She was in pain, she was panting, she was unhappy."

The next morning Werner took her to the vet. The vet said it wasn't the old leg injury; maybe she'd cracked a rib playing too hard.

A butterfly wove through the air over Wrigley's head as Werner talked. She lifted her head, ears perked up. Then she drooped again.

Left: Rick Werner lifts Wrigley to show off her wound.

"That night, she swelled up," Werner said. "It was just horrible, sacks of fluid just hanging from her sides, and her neck and chest swelled -- horrible, horrible." And she itched.

On the second visit, the vet shaved Wrigley's tender side and identified what appeared to be a puncture wound. "Oh, I hope it's not a brown recluse bite," the vet told Werner. And Werner replied, "Oh, no, there are no brown recluse spiders here." In fact, the next day, Werner -- who for years has been telling his friends that there are no brown recluse spiders in California -- brought the vet some articles on brown recluse spiders written by one of the country's premier arachnologists, UC-Riverside researcher Rick Vetter. Vetter's research attacks the myths that surround the range of brown recluse spiders.

In any case, the vet determined Wrigley had been envenomated by something, and he treated her accordingly. The swelling went down. But, meanwhile, Wrigley's wound, which turned out to be on her belly, became necrotic. The flesh around it died and blackened. "I was freaking out," Werner said. "I'm doubting my own info, thinking this is my punishment for telling friends there's no brown recluses here."

Then a friend told him, maybe it was a hobo spider -- there'd been reports from medical professionals in the area about hobo spider bites. Werner began reading about hobo spiders and decided maybe that was it. He contacted Vetter. And Vetter -- whose recent research shows that even if hobo spiders do occur in our region, they probably aren't that toxic -- told Werner to send him specimens. Werner captured a potential hobo in a Coca Cola glass as it scuttled across his living room floor, shot some close-ups of it and e-mailed the photos to Vetter. "And he said, 'Nope, that's an immature male false black widow.' What I concluded was, there's a million different spiders that look like hobos, but there's only about four or five that live in funnel webs [like hobos]."

Sigh. The upshot is, nobody really knows what bit poor Wrigley -- who's healing nicely now. But the mystery plagues Werner. "I just wish I had an educated theory," he said. "It's driving me crazy, not knowing. I'm still in the yard, with my dog, and [the ordeal] cost me $1,000."

Werner's even more intrigued now by the notion of toxic spiders. Vetter told him about his brown recluse challenges, where he has people in places where the brown recluse is known not to occur send in spiders they claim are brown recluses (Loxosceles reclusa). The latest challenge was in Redding, Calif., this summer, where a journalist had people send spiders they thought were brown recluses to the county vector control office. That office sent them to Vetter for identification. None of the 14 spiders collected were recluses. In a previous, nationwide challenge, Vetter received 1,773 suspected brown recluses from people in 49 states. "From 25 of 29 states completely or almost completely outside of the range of Loxosceles spiders, no [actual] recluse spiders were submitted," wrote Vetter in his report. A third of the specimens sent in were from paranoid Californians. Vetter's conclusion: Lots of people living in no-brown-recluse land say they've been bit by a brown recluse, but nobody can ever produce an actual brown recluse. Brown recluses have been documented -- by the thousands, sometimes in one little room, and with nary a person ever being bit -- mostly in the southeastern and lower Midwest states. Some, known as desert recluses, live in the Southwest (and we're not talking about Art Bell here, people.)

"I asked him if he'd be interested in getting a challenge going here [in Humboldt County], for brown recluses and hobo spiders," Werner said.

Turns out, Vetter is not so interested in getting a spider challenge going here. It's not that he doesn't care -- he's just a little, um, annoyed at this point. The problem is, people always want to argue with him after he tells them their spider isn't a recluse or a hobo. "I'm really tired of stupid e-mails from people," Vetter said last week, speaking on the telephone from inside his lab at UC-Riverside. "I really don't want people contacting me telling me I'm wrong. There are reasons we're called experts. The vector control guy knows enough to know he can't identify spiders. And yet the common person thinks they know more than the experts."

Maybe it's just mission fatigue. For more than a decade, Vetter has been trying to get people to stop jumping to the brown recluse conclusion.

"The biggest problem is what I call the Holy Trinity," Vetter said. "Doctors misdiagnose a condition as a brown recluse bite, then the media reports it, and then the public spreads it further." And along comes Vetter, trying to shred this web of mythology. "It's like going to a meeting of the Flat Earth Society with a globe."

But medical professionals slowly are beginning to listen to him. Which is important.

"People always say I'm defending the spider -- and that's wrong," he said. "The biggest problem is, doctors are misdiagnosing potentially deadly conditions as spider bites. One of the biggest things is Lyme's Disease that's been misdiagnosed as a brown recluse bite. If you see a necrotic wound [on a victim living in an area where there are no brown recluses], it more likely could be a rare expression of Lyme's Disease." And that disease, if undiagnosed, can lead to life-threatening complications.

Back in Eureka, at the Myrtle Avenue Veterinary Hospital where Wrigley was treated, Dr. Jeff Kelley-Day (who was not on duty during Wrigley's ordeal) said his office is now less inclined to blame brown recluses for nasty bites. Regardless, for any "target lesion" the treatment is the same: anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. As for determining the actual culprit, that's difficult. The things are never attached to the animal by the time it gets to the vet.

Besides, Vetter says it's not easy for the common person, or even a vet, to identify a spider. "People try to identify a spider by coloration, and this is one of the least useful traits that arachnologists use to identify spiders," he said. "We look at hairs, the orientation of hairs, and eye patterns -- microscopic features. You've got to know a lot to identify spiders." That said -- and his dread of stupid e-mails aside -- Vetter says he would like to know more about potential hobo spiders in our area.

Werner's game for helping him out. He's identified two promising funnel webs -- one behind the red hot tub next to his house, the other inside one of his canvas gardening shoes on the porch. He e-mailed Vetter, asking him how to capture the funnel spiders. Vetter replied:

"Be careful. Be lightning quick. Pull a wing off a fly, drop it in his funnel web. The spider runs out to get the fly, and you put a piece of cardboard in front of the funnel so it can't run back in."

"But then what?" said Werner, laughing. "He didn't tell me what to do next! So, I need more information."

Well, everyone always needs more information. And there's plenty of that to go around, at least about brown recluses, hobos and the silly things people believe. Check out, and go from there.



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