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Crazy about creepy-crawlies
by Andrea Longbottom
Eleven-year-old Elizabeth MulÚ knows just about everything about tarantulas. When she was 7, she wrote an article on spider mating. She has given spider presentations at schools, been interviewed on TV (including Jay Leno's The Tonight Show), and researched the medical uses of tarantula venom. In October 2005, the homeschooler was inducted into the Kids Hall of Fame.
Elizabeth MulÚ attends her Kids Hall of Fame induction ceremony. As representatives of the sponsors of Elizabeth's trip, Kylene Beaman (left) of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and Ruthann Tucholka (right), the Southwest Airlines stewardess who arranged the flight, presented her award.
Less than two months before, the MulÚs' Louisiana home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina (Elizabeth lost 50 pet tarantulas in the storm). The family had evacuated to Texas and was unable to fund a flight to the Kids Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Long Island. But when a Southwest Airlines flight attendant heard about Elizabeth's circumstances on the news, she arranged for the airline to fly Elizabeth and her mother to Long Island. At the ceremony, Elizabeth set up a tarantula exhibit with posters, fact sheets, pictures, and even samples of tarantula skin. Eventually, she will have a permanent exhibit in the future Kids Hall of Fame museum.
Elizabeth's interest in spiders began at age 3 when she spotted one on her car seat. "I screamed, and my dad pulled over almost in the ditch!" she remembers. But after her father killed the spider, "I felt sorry for it," says Elizabeth. "So then I wanted to look it up and see what kind it was."
When Elizabeth was 5, her parents struck a deal with her: she could have a tarantula if she first researched spiders and passed a test about the eight-legged critters. Elizabeth aced the test and took a trip to the pet store to find her first tarantula, Fluffy. "My mom said, 'Only one!' says Elizabeth. The 11-year-old has since owned about 70 tarantulas. Currently, she has 20, some of them six inches across and all in individual cages to prevent them from fighting one another.
Elizabeth's passion for arachnids has attracted the attention of schools, newspapers, a university, and TV shows. Spiders have also led Elizabeth into the world of medical research. When Elizabeth's dad developed a serious heart condition, Elizabeth researched the medical uses of tarantula venom and found that it may present a cure to certain muscular diseases. She created a short film on her findings, which she presented at a conference of the American Tarantula Society. Her research also led her to Dr. Frederick Sachs of Buffalo University in New York, who conducts medical research on spider venom. After visiting his lab in 2004, Elizabeth sent Dr. Sachs two of her spiders as mascots for the lab. She explained they were not there for testing. "They're there to live happy lives," she says.
Homeschooled since preschool, Elizabeth says home education gives her more time to study spiders than if she attended school all day. "You can do your schoolwork with your tarantulas on the table!" she says, laughing. "It's like having a lot of pets in your classroom." In 2004, Elizabeth studied arachnology as one of her courses. Susan MulÚ, Elizabeth's mother and a former adjunct instructor at the University of New Orleans, says, "We recorded all the hours she spent doing spider-related activities and were able to write that up into a course description at the end of the year." Elizabeth has also participated in field collecting (locating spiders in the wild) with professionals, and she is a member of the American Tarantula Society. "Children have passions," says Susan. "And I think the reason we don't see a lot of passions come to fruition in school children is that they don't have the time. Homeschooling has given Elizabeth the freedom to learn the way she wants to learn."
Although studying and raising spiders is Elizabeth's favorite hobby, she also enjoys drawing, making bead jewelry, sewing, and Girl Scouts. She plans to attend college and major in biology and chemistry, then attend graduate school at the University of Buffalo, where she hopes to research the medical benefits of tarantula venom.
Find out about the Kids Hall of Fame.