Consider the Hermit Crab


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If summer needs an animal ambassador, might I suggest the humble hermit crab? Autumn has its migrating geese fleeing winter’s creep, the spring its chicks and lambs and bunnies and other quasi-religious symbols of annual renewal. Summer is a different beast. Nothing is being ushered in, nothing escorted out. It just is, which feels about a hermit crab’s speed, doesn’t it?

This might be a lot of weight to put on the crustacean’s fragile exoskeleton, but summer and the hermit crab have much in common. Both are prickly and finicky. Like the season’s heavy heat, a crab can seem to just sit there, doing nothing; but turn your back on either, and they disappear.

Beginning this week, millions of Americans will make day-long and weekend-long and week-long and season-long treks to the continent’s shores. Some will come home with hermit crabs, and many of these will die. This we take for granted; nobody really ever bought one with the hopes of making it a true companion. We bought them because hermit crabs are — if not the ambassadors of summer as I’ve described them — the living souvenirs of it.

But as it is not yet October, and we have not yet spent weeks wondering Is it dead? Or is that just what they do? before giving up and throwing the thing in the trash, allow me to reposition the hermit crab as a symbol of more than sunburnt days and seafood nights. I actually believe it represents a great deal more: Look far enough into the coils of that shell, and you notice that the hermit crab has an oddly particular place in our relationship with animals.

To understand why, it helps to consider the history of the hermit crab as a living object put up for sale. This, it turns out, is easier said than done. There is no shoratage of scholarship on the keeping of animals for pleasure: the work ranges from the broad — Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets by Yi-Fu Tuan and Pets in America by Katherine Grier — to the specific — Bernd Brunne’s The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium and Kathleen Kete’s The Beat in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Yet no historian I’ve found has touched the crustacean. What happens when you look for hermit crabs in academia? You get crickets.

Maybe this is because, for all our talk of hermit crabs as pets, we all know they’re not really pets. Nobody rushes home after a nasty break-up to curl on the couch with a hermit crab. They lack the cultural context and expressive qualities that would make them any kind of Internet hit or America’s Funniest Home Videos winner. You don’t have to find it rude when somebody brings a hermit crab into a coffee shop or a book store, because nobody does.

A clue to the crab’s non-petness is one of the animal’s earliest champions. You may not know the name Harold von Braunhut, but you do know his contributions to a certain realm of the culture: X-ray glasses, invisible goldfish, and what was quite possibly the most famous of disposable pets — Sea Monkeys. In the 1960s, von Braunhut started hawking dried brine shrimp that appeared to come to life in water. The next decade, his Transcience Corporation began selling “Amazing Air Breathing Crazy Crabs” through ads in comic books and magazines. Von Braunhut would argue that hermit crabs do, in fact, make good pets. “[S]ee how well it responds when you call it!,” one ad read. “It loves to be touched and petted, and enjoys running from hand to hand, swinging from your fingers or just cuddling on your shoulder like an adorable tame parrot.” The ad described the hermit crab as “An ‘Attention-Getter’ Without Equal!…To ‘break the ice’ and make new friends, take your ‘Crazy Crab’ with you and be the center of attention.” If the idea of using a hermit crab to win friends and influence people sounds like a bit of a stretch, well, von Braunhut was no stranger to outrageous claims. And I’m not talking about the invisible goldfish here: According to a 1996 Anti-Defamation League report, by way of von Braunhut’s New York Times obituary, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations.

With the Internet, of course, comes an exception to every generalization, and a small but fervent crabs-as-pets community has developed on the egalitarian Web. Message boards share tips on equipment for maintaining temperature and humidity, memorials for lost crabs, and adoption services. The language of the crab world ranges from excitement (“I only have 41 crabs…and I need about a million more!”) and sincerity (“R.I.P Godzilla & Jake”), to exasperation (“I think I went way too far into this whole crab thing”) and, in rare cases, boredom (“Lost interest in my Hermit Crabs”). Last year, a woman in a Fort Myers retirement community celebrated the 32nd birthday of two crabs — Crab Kate and Jonathan Livingston Crab. This unsurprisingly displeases People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose position is that “crabs should never, ever be kept as pets.”

You could argue whether a hermit crab makes a good or bad pet until the sea cows come home, but the fact is, hermit crabs occupy a unique space on the animal continuum for a lot of people. If you think of this as a spectrum with horses and monkeys and dogs at one end, and, say, bacteria at the other, the hermit crab is close enough to the former group to make it an animal worth the time and money required to buy and maintain it. But it’s also just close enough to the other end that if it dies, well, there’s always next summer.

The animal bridges other conflicting interests as well. It is one of the few to be harvested from the wild (generally the Caribbean, as breeding hermit crabs is not nearly as easy or effective as just pulling them out of nature). Their role as souvenir is, in fact, to evoke a landscape whose value is grounded in its natural qualities — the sea, sand, and sun. Yet this nod to wildness is not celebrated in any way, as it is with National Parks and immersive zoo exhibits. Anything but. The crabs usually come in wire or plastic tank cages with neon lids. Some have natural shells, but others are painted to resemble a yellow smiley face or helmets of NFL football teams or cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants. You can buy a Hermit Crab Bling Kit to, presumably, pimp your crab.

If hermit crabs aren’t generally considered to be pets in the classic sense of the word, they strangely hold no kitsch value either. You can buy them with small plastic palm trees and coconut shells painted neon colors and rainbow gravel, but nobody does in any wink-wink way. I have no idea why this is the case. Sea Monkeys and ant farms? Retro. Hermit crabs? Well, they’re just…nothing. They’re purchased neither earnestly nor ironically.

The hermit crab, in the end, is defined not by what it is, but by what it isn’t, by its straddling so many conflicting ways of looking at and thinking about and interacting with animals. The idea of pets representing our desires to both control and enjoy the natural world is not a new one (again, Taun’s Dominance & Affection). But does any animal sit closer to that divide than the hermit crab? Does any animal sit as close to the divides between the wild and the artificial, between the sardonic and the sentimental?

That feels like a lot to ascribe to a hermit crab, an animal whose skittish behavior already suggests they live terror-filled lives they weren’t cut out for. But crabs were and continue to be bystanders to their own lives, vehicles for everything but an interaction with a living thing: Many stores today actually give them away for free* (provided you buy a cage and food and a sponge and gravel and a water bowl and any other number of accouterments).

Maybe, then, this is enough talk about crabs and summer and nature. Maybe it’s time to just go out and enjoy them all, before they scurry off. • 28 May 2009