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Uncovering the Hidden Benefits of Holding Rosie; A Conversation with Jackie Billotte

Uncovering the Hidden Benefits of Holding Rosie; A Conversation with Jackie Billotte

Jackie Billotte, PhD Candidate at CSU and Butterfly Pavilion Research Associate is conducting research on how holding Rosie the Tarantula may impact people’s long term perception of spiders. Earlier this month I sat down to talk with Jackie about her research. Read our conversation below!



Lindsey: First, I’d love to hear how you got into this work to begin with?

Jackie: So I kind of always liked bugs. Like, I did my undergraduate thesis work on maggot activity. And then during my master's, I worked with parasitoid wasps. When I was getting ready to do a PhD, I was keeping ants (they're all native ants) and I wanted to get a tarantula. Being the good little scientist I was, I was like, I'm going to look up research on how to keep them and not just use YouTube.

And there wasn't any.

There was a real absence of research on them. I ended up contacting the IUCN Spider and Scorpion Species Specialist Chairman, and asked if there was anybody doing research with tarantulas, specifically in conservation. He said, not really, that's really the problem that we see a lot. It's called academic verticalism were you get into your graduate work, and your advisor does something, so you do that same thing. And then your students do that same thing. And then often, nobody really moves into these lesser studied areas.

Arachnology is a perfect place to find understudied areas. There’s not many arachnologists out there.
So I thought, maybe I could do this. I actually found out Butterfly Pavilion was doing a research paper about some of this stuff, so I called Dr. Rich Reading [VP of Science and Conservation] and right away got started on the work. That was in 2018.

Lindsey: Quick tangent- do you still have your tarantula at home? Did you get any more

Jackie: Yes, we have 87 tarantulas.

Lindsey: 87? At your house?

Jackie: *Laughs* Yeah, we have about 87 tarantulas, and we have three widows, and we have two jumping spiders, four scorpions, and two snakes. And we have three dogs.

Lindsey: Wow. That’s amazing. They must keep you very busy. Can you talk about the research project you are doing at Butterfly Pavilion?

Jackie: So all my work dovetails into what can be considered conservation. We definitely have a lot to learn with tarantulas, especially with all spiders, but tarantulas especially. And especially with what's considered non-charismatic fauna, so that would basically be fauna people don't like, or overwhelmingly the public isn't enthusiastic about. Spiders are the poster child for that, but snakes fall into that category, sharks fall into that category.

You know, if you're like, oh, here's this adorable little fuzzy creature and it needs our help, people are like, yes, I want to help it because it's fuzzy. And spiders don't really have that. So one way to get people educated about conservation and to get them engaged is conducting outreach. We found that if you just give people facts and information, it actually doesn't persuade them, it drives them further into their corners and it will deepen them into their previous perception of that creature

So something that Butterfly Pavilion does, I don't know if it was on purpose or not, but with Rosie, we really anthropomorphized her- she's got a birthday celebration and everything. And then also there's tactile outreach. Showing people images of the animal can help, but it doesn't seem to have a sustained effect. But this sort of tactile interaction and anthropomorphizing can be really helpful.

Lindsey: What, if any, other research has been done to showcase this?

Jackie: For non-charismatic fauna, there aren't very many experiences or research like this out there. The two I can think of off the top of my head, and they don't always happen, are at the London Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. But they are specialized or sporadic programs that are not very accessible for people.

So, holding Rosie at Butterfly Pavilion is incredibly unique. To have an experience with a spider, with a non-charismatic fauna in general, is so unique. Though, this type of tactile outreach for non, non-charismatic fauna, think pandas and lions, fuzzy animals that people love, has worked well.

So I wanted to try this out on Rosie, because now they have a friend spider, right? Rosie's their friend. And there's a bit of a high after you're done holding Rosie. You're like, I held a spider! And people come out and they're like, I did it! And they got their picture and they're super charged up.

But I wanted to see if a couple days later when you've come down from your Rosie high, if you're still feeling more positively towards them and their conservation.

Lindsey: Why do you think so many people are scared to hold Rosie to begin with?

Jackie: We don't know really know why people are afraid of spiders so overwhelmingly. Even amongst entomology students, only 8% of them had a positive view of spiders. This was from Dr. Cranshaw's paper where he surveyed students at CSU, and, yeah, they just didn't like them.

And with spiders, like, there’s very few that could actually kill you, so, why we would have evolved this fear- there's some hypothesis that maybe we're projecting scorpion shapes onto them. But that all gets a lot more complicated.

Lindsey: So, how are you gathering information on people’s perception of Rosie and spiders? What are you asking people and how are you asking them?

Jackie: We are using a survey that people can scan on their phone and just answer the questions online while they're in line or before holding Rosie. It asks if they’ve held her before, and then just how, in general, they're feeling. So we do some open-ended questions, so we get to see if they're apprehensive about it, their anxiety level about it, that sort of thing.

Then, people fill out other surveys six days later, and then again three months later. This helps us track how people are feeling about spiders long after holding Rosie, and if there was any change to how they felt originally.

Lindsey: So anyone in line to hold Rosie can fill out this survey?

Jackie: When I am there in person to conduct the survey, yes. I’m usually there in the afternoons and on weekends when it’s busiest. And soon, I’ll hopefully I have some of my graduate students helping me.

Lindsey: What about kids? Do you have kids take the surveys too?

Jackie: If you're over seven, you can take the survey. And we do have a different survey for kids. It's emoji-based so it’s more fun for them to fill out. This is actually also part of the research- seeing if that is an effective way to survey kids.

Anecdotally, from my experience being near the Rosie line, a lot of times the really little kids are totally okay with it [holding Rosie]. Like, they're not afraid. And then if the parents are nervous, they might try to talk them out of it. They're like, are you sure you want to do this? Are you scared? It's like, if you keep telling them that, they might become scared.

And I know that that is in the list of possible reasons people are afraid of spiders. Is that we're just trained to be.

Lindsey: That’s so interesting. And I’ve witnessed that myself since it took me quite a while to feel comfortable holding her. But kids seem to, more often than not, feel excited right away.

Jackie: Yeah! One thing I've noticed- the older you get, the more you're like, I'm not doing it. And some people have a very visceral reaction to being asked if they're going to hold Rosie. They're like, absolutely not. But when people do hold her, they definitely do have, like, a Rosie high. And people have very good questions, which is so awesome to hear. The Rosie handlers are captivating. I just feel like listening to them all day.

People will ask them questions. Is she poisonous? How old she is? And, you know, if it's a male or female and the differences. It's just been really cool to see the questions people ask. Because once they're seated, and they see, oh, she's just walking. It's a fuzzy ball of cotton, basically. That kind of moves around. I can see their apprehension kind of shift to curiosity.

And that's, also, as someone that teaches science, I talk to young students all the time. It's cool to see people's intellectual curiosity, like, kick in from something like that. You can actually, in adults even, kind of inspire that intellectual curiosity about an animal that they probably wouldn't have looked up other things about. They want to know about the animal and learn about it.

Lindsey: That’s really inspiring to hear about. So, when are you hoping to complete the research and publish your findings?

Jackie: Well I’ll spend the next month or two continuing to collect the data. And then analysis takes a couple months. So hopefully by early fall I’ll have some data to share. I’ll definitely wrap up the project this year.

Lindsey: And then what are your goals for how this research can be used once published

Jackie: So, with uncharacteristic fauna, it's a lot about how we can improve public perception and public support, because where public support goes is often where funding goes, and that includes funding for both research and conservation efforts.

For a lot of species, we have such insufficient data. And looking at other animals that are considered non-charismatic, it's often hard to get that public support, and that does include some bugs. Ya know, people might not be as enthusiastic about, like, cave roaches, because they're roaches. So, trying to find the most effective ways to use what money is there for conservation for those animals to perpetuate further work, further research, and further outreach, is so important.



Thank you to Jackie for sitting down to discuss her amazing research with us! Later this year, we’ll be sharing Jackie’s research findings on how Holding Rosie can change people’s perceptions and increase intellectual curiosity regarding spiders. We can’t wait to share more!

To learn more about Jackie and her research, visit her website.

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Butterfly Pavilion Statement on Poisoned Bees

As a leader in pollinator conservation, Butterfly Pavilion has a responsibility as stewards of invertebrates and their habitats to find sustainable solutions to the pollinator crisis, through habitat restoration, research, and responsible conscientious pest management practices.
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May 7, 2018
By Mary Ann Colley

Telling the Untold Story: The Value of Interpreting Invertebrates

The Value of Interpreting Invertebrates
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May 7, 2018
By Mary Ann Colley

Beekeeping, Pollinator Awareness through Conservation and Education, and Rice’s Honey

Beekeeping, PACE, and Rice's Honey
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April 17, 2018
By Shae Porter

Butterfly Pavilion Announces Naming Contest for Our New Octopus

Can you come up with the winning name for our Octopus Vulgaris, the common octopus?
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April 5, 2018
By Mary Ann Colley

Coastal Dunes in California

Did you ever think bugs could save a beach? Well, they can!
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March 23, 2018
By Shae Porter

New Survival Exhibit Opens at Butterfly Pavilion on March 24, 2018

Colorado’s only invertebrate zoo, will debut its newest interactive exhibit, Survival, beginning March 24, 2018.
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March 22, 2018
By Mary Ann Colley

The Mystery of Colorado’s Butterfly Populations

“Where have all the butterflies gone?” is a common question I get when I tell people I study butterflies for a living.
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March 6, 2018
By Shae Porter

World Spider Day Comes to Butterfly Pavilion March 17, 2018

World Spider Day Spins a Fascinating Web at Butterfly Pavilion on March 17, 2018
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March 2, 2018
By Mary Ann Colley

The Value of Citizen Science

Picture a scientist. What is the person wearing? What are they doing? Do you they look anything like you?
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February 1, 2018
By Mary Ann Colley

Entomophagy: Could Eating Insects Save the World?

Entomophagy is the technical term for eating insects...
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February 1, 2018
By Mary Ann Colley

The Urban Prairies Project: Habitat Conservation and Community Wellness

Sometimes, conservation and habitat restoration wind up building community.
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January 22, 2018
By Shae Porter

A Message from our President and CEO

Science and education can change the world.
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January 22, 2018
By Shae Porter

Two Colorado Companies Join Forces to Promote Pollinator Awareness Worldwide

Rice’s® Honey to partner with Butterfly Pavilion’s PACE Initiative to inform consumers about the importance of pollination.
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November 1, 2017
By Shae Porter

Butterfly Pavilion to participate in the Colorado Pollinator Summit at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Nov. 2, 2017

One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators like bees, butterflies and beetles and without them, there would be no fruits, nuts, vegetables, oils or most flowers!
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September 26, 2017
By Shae Porter

Butterfly Pavilion’s New Facility in Broomfield, Colo. to be the Global Hub for Invertebrate Research, Conservation and Education

New, $30M, 60,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art invertebrate zoo and research center will be the jewel of the global invertebrate community – inspiring a new way of connecting to environmental conservation.
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