Spider ManiaChuck and Anita Kristensen's home crawls with spiders (and centipedes and scorpions). It might sound like the set of Arachnophobia, but it's not. It's all in a day's work at Spider Pharm in Yarnell.
By Kathy Montgomery
Yarnell Anita Kristensen's house is crawling with bugs — about 50,000 spiders, scorpions and centipedes fill every nook and cranny. Most people would move. Anita feeds them. Seven days a week. It's just part of the daily grind at Spider Pharm Inc. (fine arachnologicals and more) in Yarnell, recognized as one of the wackiest home-based businesses in the country.
How did she get involved in this work? "I met my husband," Anita deadpans. That was more than 20 years ago.
Chuck Kristensen originally studied zoology. He was interested in animal behavior, but quit school when he discovered there were few jobs in his area of interest. Later, Chuck got a degree in chemistry and went on to graduate school, where he discovered the nascent research on spider venom. Little had been done at the time, mainly because there was no one dedicated to supplying the venom. Chuck had been fascinated by spiders, mostly from a behavioral standpoint, but considered it a hobby. Now he saw an opportunity to profit from his passion and quit grad school to pursue it.
An industrial chemist by day, Chuck labored at night in his garage on Spider Pharm. Part of the problem with getting venom for research was that it involved killing the hosts. Chuck thought he could develop a method to milk the venom from live spiders. He eventually did, but it took more than 2 years to work out the bugs. In 1983, he quit his day job to operate Spider Pharm full time.
The company has since been a boon to researchers who have discovered a wealth of therapeutic compounds in venoms, including treatments for pain, cardiac arrhythmias and stroke. Researcher Rob Mackinnon used Spider Pharm venom in research that earned him the prestigious Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2003.
The work is not glamorous — Chuck and Anita were recently featured on a segment of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs — but it has brought a measure of recognition, and a gig as consultants on the movie Arachnophobia. Less welcome was the attention brought by a Time magazine article that got them evicted because home businesses were unwelcome.
Nor is it particularly lucrative. Chuck once calculated that it takes about a ton of dog food (which is used to raise the maggots that feed the spiders) to produce a tenth of a gram of venom. And he describes the business model as "suicidal." Once an effective compound is identified, it is synthesized or grown.
So, these days, the Kristensens are working on educational products. Spiders and other insects are often children's first contact with nature, Chuck says. The ultimate goal is to get kids to notice what's in their homes. Though — one hopes — in smaller numbers.