Hermit crabs are cute, but they require a lot of care

They're small and customizable. They're cheap and supposedly don't need a lot of care. Enter the hermit crab.

Souvenir shops sell them all across Alabama's Gulf Coast. The display is as follows:

First, they sell plastic carriers that are small enough to fit only two good-sized navel oranges. The convenient thing about it is the small index card inside of it with “free crab,” printed on it. According to hermit-crabs.com, these plastic cases are not adequate permanent housing. There is no pamphlet on how to care for the pet included. Next to it, there's a large open compartment of colorful painted hermit crabs piled up on each other. There's maybe two shallow bowls of gray water piled up with several once-vibrant, living sponges.

A sign beside the edge of the open tub says “crabs will pinch,’’ but it does little to dissuade an errant hand. The main idea is to encourage people to touch the crabs, feel their shells, and admire them. They want anyone to come pick up a critter, fall into a quick love, and take home a new best friend for an hour or two.

There is no attendant. An unchecked human has a great capability to be cruel to the helpless. One can only let their imaginations carry the caring into a tide pool of sadness.

Selling hermit crabs (from the beach into a much more domestic and predictable environment) sends a message. Is the message that domesticating a simple, but wild, animal for the sake of novelty acceptable or is it just another mind-numbing buy, buy, buy message?

With prices around $7, souvenir shops make a profit off marketing the “cutie-ifying” sale of these wild animals.

I'm not knocking the magic of a child's first pet because children can be some of the best pet owners, but there is almost no care given to the hermit crab. Hermit crabs need a lot of attention regarding humidity levels so they don't suffocate in the sand when molting. If a child wants a pet with low maintenance, a hermit crab is not a good first pet.

Hermit crabs do not cry and tend to die a silent, starved death for the sake of an hour or two's entertainment. There are many factors to consider such as moisture levels, non-chlorinated waters, shell stock, physical stimulation, and even companions. A proper care guide is at plightofthehermies.org/adopt.

The unfortunate fact is that typical ownership is a neglected open tank. While well-meaning owners may take the hermit crabs out to explore, the environment is foreign to them. The care of hermit crabs is much more intensive than most of us would think.

The life expectancy of a hermit can be as long as 40 years old in the wild, but domesticated crabs will live at the most a couple of decades with proper care and luck. Every hermit crab you find in stores is from the oceanic world, as there are no reported instances of domestic breeding. The eggs need oceanic currents and waves for nourishment.

Aside from their shells, hermit crabs are helpless. Their defenses are to pinch and hide. I've been on the beach, and I've been able to pluck them from the sand.

Despite the name of hermit, they live in social clusters, exchanging smaller shells for bigger shells. Their curious habits lead some to find many manmade objects in place of a shell. They explore, poke, and prod almost anything on the ocean floor in search of natural detritus. Just watch Sir David Attenborough describe a gathering of hermit crabs here. Fascinating, aren't they?

I'll be honest. Hermit crabs are not cute and fluffy. They smell kind of funny, and they might pinch you even on a good day. You don't see a lot of people advocating hermit crab rights. The way I see it is that every living creature deserves a peaceful life that doesn't involve fear and carelessness even if they aren't furry.

I've noticed that as humankind comes to know more about creatures of every sort, they grow to respect them. Just look at how diminished the dyed chick or rabbits foot market has become. When's the last time you've seen a stuffed ermine on shelves? If we understand hermit crabs, perhaps we, too, can respect such a strange creature.

Think of the poison dart frog. That slimy critter is on the World Wildlife Foundation’s protection list. If a poisonous amphibian can come under our broad conservation wings, why can't a hermit crab?

Maybe we, as caring humans, can taboo-ify the message that domesticating a wild animal is acceptable for the sake of novelty or souvenir. The actions we can take are surprisingly simple as talking about hermit crabs to others and becoming a consumer who is more aware.

As tempting as it may be to free the bin of hermit crabs, releasing an animal back into the wild is not a good idea. Before you go freeing the hermit crabs, think of the diseases that can spread from the captured to the free and wild hermit crabs. The best thing that we can do is education.
We can talk to our friends about the immaculate care that's a part of hermit crab keeping. We can ask stores to quit selling them without properly informing pet buyers of the extensive care hermit crab-keeping entails. We can even pass out pamphlets and refuse to buy them.

The purchase of every animal as a pet should be a well-informed decision on their care and well-being, furry or not. It affects the animal, and it reflects on the person.

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