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Be Nice to Spiders

By Margaret Bloy Graham

Book module by Christian Purnell and Leah Meltzer


When Billy left his spider Helen outside the Bronx zoo it is unlikely he could have predicted the impact his little pet would have. Upon entering the zoo for the first time, Helen the spider became hungry and immediately set about building a web to catch some flies. She built webs in all of the animal cages one by one, eating to her heart's desire and simultaneously and inadvertently relieving the animals of the pesky flies that filled their cages. One day the cleaners of the zoo decided to remove the spider webs in an effort to beautify the animals’ cages. Helen fled to hide in the camel cage. Soon flies again filled every cage except the camel’s cage, the animals became very unhappy. The zookeepers realized that Helen filled a vital role ridding the zoo of bothersome flies and Helen soon became a zoo celebrity while the zookeepers learned a valuable lesson about the importance of spiders.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The most important question in Be Nice to Spiders is: why be nice to creepy, crawly, spiders?

It could be that the zookeepers spared the webs of Helen simply because Helen benefited the animals which made the zoo-goers happy and translated into greater profit. Or, it could be that they felt it was wrong to disrupt the natural environment of the spider; as natural of an environment as a manmade zoo can be.

Both this question and its answers approach a key distinction in the philosophy of environmental ethics between the ​instrumental value​ and ​intrinsic value​ of nature. In other words, should aspects of nature be viewed as a means to an end or as an end in and of themselves?

Question bank one begins the discussion exploring these subjects by recounting important aspects of the story and discussing the value, if any, the students place on nature or the state of being natural. If the students do believe that Helen is valuable, as most who followed the plot surely will, the discussion that follows should tease out why Helen is valuable and where such value is derived.

A thought experiment is a good place to start with such a broad discussion. As shown in question bank one, the leaders should identify a number of different “things” found in nature and ask the kids if they would be comfortable displacing or killing, if applicable, each thing. Such an activity will hopefully allow the kids to reflect on primary reasons why they may value something, enough to pause in displacing or killing that thing, such as “it can feel” or it “it looks like a human” or “it is kind” or “it gives us something”. This activity is especially effective when the “things”, living or not, are ordered in a way to demonstrate a theme in environmental ethics. In the case below, the “things” are ordered by increasing relative sentience. Sentience is a commonly valued trait by humans in the philosophy of environmental ethics.

It is at this point in the discussion that the group leaders can call attention to the fact that much of the discussion has revolved around what humans value. Why do we get to choose? This question grasps at the complex concept of anthropocentrism, or more simply put, a human centered view of earth. Question bank two covers this concept and asks some direct questions regarding a human’s positionality on earth and whether humans get to claim the moral high ground. With multiple possible directions, this part of the discussion should lead down interesting paths regarding a human’s moral duty to care for the environment or place its own interests above all.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Why be nice to Spiders?

  1. Why did the zookeepers want to get rid of Helen the spider?
  2. Who benefitted from Helen being gone?
  3. Why did the zookeepers want Helen to come back?
  4. Who benefitted from Helen being allowed to stay?
  5. Who benefitted the most from Helen being allowed to stay?
  6. Can you think of a reason why having Helen back would be important regardless of the benefits she offers to the zookeepers and the zoo in general?
  7. Let's do an exercise: We are going to give you 6 things that you have no connection to and do nothing to benefit or hurt you. We would like you to raise your hand if you would be willing to displace or get rid of if applicable? A rock, a tree, a spider, a cow, a chimpanzee, a dog, a human
  8. What is the theme of this list? In other words what is the difference between each as the list progresses from rock to human?
  9. Despite the fact that you may rather kill a cow than a human, do all things have equal value? What would make one thing more valuable than another?
  10. Can you think of a time when it would ever be more important to save a tree, or a cow, than to save a human?
  11. Why do we have national parks? They are not sentient but it seems like there is importance in something being natural or untouched by humans. Why are “natural” or “organic” things considered more valuable?
  12. What does it mean to call something “natural”?


  1. Are humans above the rest of nature in importance? Are we allowed to choose who or what lives or dies or can be misplaced?
  2. Are human beings equal in value to non-human natural beings?
  3. Why are the animals in the book in cages instead of allowed to be free in nature?
  4. Who do zoos serve? Who benefits from the existence of the zoo?
  5. What would be a way to honor an animal’s intrinsic value?
  6. Are there ways we can honor nature’s instrumental value without harming it?
  7. Do you love nature? Do you love nature like you love a friend? What is different about your love for nature from your love for a friend?

This book module deals with environmental ethics, nature, and anthropocentrism. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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