30 May 2023

The UK’s most frightened arachnophobes have faced their biggest fears at London Zoo, at an anniversary event to celebrate 30 years of its Friendly Spider Programme. 

Following a nationwide search for the arachnophobes most in need of expert help, the brave bunch travelled from across the UK to take part in the conservation zoo’s important Friendly Spider Programme - famous for converting bug-squishers into spider lovers - and finally embrace a lifetime free from their debilitating fears.

London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme course leader Dave Clarke said: “Arachnophobia can be an intense and debilitating fear. I’m so proud that our brave Friendly Spider Programme participants faced their fears at this weekend’s 30th anniversary course. 

“We welcomed people with some of the most extreme fears we've seen in three decades, including a banker who broke her hand trying to rid her house of a spider, a clinical psychologist who struggled to help clients with phobias, a zookeeper who had to call colleagues for help every time he saw a spider at work and a nutritionist who once chose to sleep on a park bench instead of going back home after seeing one at bedtime.”

In just four short hours, after learning from zoo experts about the important invertebrates and taking part in a hypnotherapy session - run in partnership with the Centre of Clinical Hypnosis - participants headed into the Zoo’s Tiny Giants area, home to the UK’s first walk-through spider experience, to face their fears. 

The Friendly Spider Programme at London Zoo

There, the conservation zoo’s dedicated team of spider specialists alongside John Clifford, CEO of the Centre of Clinical Hypnosis, successfully helped former arachnophobes to catch native house spiders with a cup and card, earning themselves a certificate of success, and even taking the opportunity to meet beautiful bird-eating spider Rosie. 

Casey Thompson, a 51-year-old banker from Worthing said: “This has massively changed my life and means that I can co-exist with spiders. After having my son, this is the biggest achievement for me.  

“I’m going to have a grandchild in October, and I did not want to pass on this fear: I promised my son and his girlfriend that I would do my best to get over it.

“This has honestly been one of the best experiences of my life – and I never thought I would say that in the same sentence as a spider. This has helped my fear 100% - I will walk out of here and my husband will never have to catch another spider again.”

Taking a photo of a spider in the walkthrough in London Zoo
Two participants in the Friendly Spider Programme at London Zoo
Arachnophobes conquer their fears in the spider walk through

Jamaal Ishmael, a 26-year-old London Zoo keeper said: “I didn’t think I had it in me at the start, but to actually be able to hold the spiders, and have them walk all over my hands is such a great accomplishment. 

“This has definitely helped my fear. I feel so much more confident now when I’m working with the lemurs and I won’t have to call my colleagues when I see a spider – and hopefully the lemurs will be very proud of me as well when they see me not freaking out! I would definitely recommend it for anyone else who has a fear of spiders.”

Over the past 30 years, the landmark course has so far seen over 5,000 arachnophobes, travelling from as far as away America and Australia to take part, and has an impressive 98% success rate.

The Friendly Spider Programme is part of ZSL’s core mission to inspire change and protect species, and supports a number of ZSL’s conservation projects for invertebrates, both at home and abroad - including the successful reintroduction of the native semi-aquatic Fen raft spider, which is listed as endangered in the UK, but is now increasing its range due to conservation efforts.  

Dave Clarke added: “For three decades we’ve made it our mission to squash myths about our eight-legged friends and help people overcome their fear of spiders - as part of ZSL’s work protecting species in the UK and across the world. 

“Not only does this programme help people face their fears, it protects spiders, fosters respect for nature and raises funds for ZSL’s important work protecting threatened invertebrates.” 

Find out more about the Friendly Spider Programme

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