This article, featuring an interview with Laura Cascada, founder of Plight of the Hermies, originally appeared in the Courier-Post.
Hermit crabs need more than food and water
Carly Q. Romalino, @CarlyQRomalino8:39 a.m. EDT August 14, 2014
Even with a slightly askew SpongeBob SquarePants on its shell, a hermit crab climbing the wire cage in front of a T-shirt shop is symbolic of the Jersey Shore.
Despite a track record as short-lived summer pets, hermit crabs are kid magnets.
At less than $10, it’s hard to say no. Boardwalk vendors pitch the crustaceans as perfect starter pets for youngsters. They’re easy to transport, won’t leave fur on the couch and don’t need walks.
But the land crab — long a favorite vacation souvenir — requires an unexpected amount of nurturing if it’s going to make it more than a few weeks at home.
“It’s a nice first pet,” according to Martha Huelsenbeck, owner of Long Beach Island-based Shell Shanty, one of the country’s largest hermit crab distributors.
“You can say I have enough to accommodate the country,” she added.
Huelsenbeck’s company, co-owned with her husband, Bill, has permits to import the crustaceans from their native Caribbean habitat, where they can live more than 30 years and grow to softball size in the wild.
The crabs are plucked from beaches, flown to the United States and stored in the Huelsenbecks’ Jersey Shore warehouse. The couple distributes thousands of crabs to East and West Coast shore points and everywhere in between.
Wisconsin, Texas, Idaho and Ohio are hermit crab hot spots.
“They don’t carry diseases, they’re certainly inexpensive to have, and you don’t have to walk them,” noted Huelsenbeck, a former schoolteacher who fell into the hermit crab trade decades ago. Shell Shanty began wholesale operations in 1985.
But while enthusiasts tout ease of care, advocates emphasize the clawed critters have other needs that might not make them a good choice for a 10-year-old’s terrarium.
“Hermit crabs are actually really complex animals,” explained Laura Cascada, a Virginia-based crab advocate for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
PETA advisories this week reminded shoregoers to buy a commemorative T-shirt on the boardwalk instead of supporting the hermit crab trade.
Boardwalk shops have “no idea what hermit crabs need to survive,” she emphasized.
“They send you home with a few lines of some very basic needs.”
Feeding is as simple as food and water. But the crabs require 75 percent humidity to breathe and a year-round temperature near 80 degrees to mimic their natural Caribbean habitat.
They need sand — not gravel — in order to molt a hard exoskeleton as they grow. Chlorinated tap water and painted shells — those featuring SpongeBob, for instance — slowly poison the creature.
Crabs also prefer to live in groups. They sleep in piles, collaborate to find food and “have intricate shell-changing rituals,” according to Cascada.
“Unfortunately they are low on the totem pole in terms of regulation in the country,” she explained. “Our (animal welfare) laws don’t recognize them as beings that suffer as much as other animals.
“They don’t have the same type of nervous system.”
Last year, British animal behavior scientist Robert Elwood revealed strong evidence that crustaceans — lobsters, shrimp and crabs — do experience pain.
In his studies, hermit crabs made decisions based on pain, moving out of shells where they were shocked and into ones where they weren’t.
“Hermit crabs have been shown to nurse wounds when pain is inflicted on them,” Cascada said.
She has built elaborate “crabitats” for five “rescued” land crabs. The most recent addition was living on someone’s desk in a small wire cage.
Hermit crab rescues aren’t uncommon in the United States. The Hermit Crab Association, run by Ohio-based Rachel Hamilla, connects experienced crab keepers with unwanted crustaceans.
“Our group’s goal is not to stop the sale of hermit crabs, but to get owners and shop keepers to understand that these are not replaceable throwaway pets,” Hamilla explained.
Hamilla has adopted more than 70 crabs. More than 60 “hermits” live in a custom-built 135-gallon enclosure, with 11 more “teeny little ones” in a 10-gallon tank.
The smallest is the size of a dime, the largest a softball.
“Hermits require so much more care than any shop will ever tell a parent … the shop would lose the sale,” Hamilla noted.
“Getting boardwalk communities to understand these needs is hard because hermits have been a summertime stable for decades and bring in so much money.”
Carly Q. Romalino writes for the Courier-Post: 856-486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org