Tanks for the Memories

Recently I had to bury the last of my family’s hermit crabs. The old guy — or girl, for all I know — had emerged from his shell in the tank and gone to that great tide pool in the sky.
Or, perhaps, that great giant tank full of hermit crab toys and grotesquely smelling scraps of driftwood on which crabs climb in the afterlife. I will miss him, in part because he was the exact opposite of my cats: He didn’t turn couches into 300-pound balls of thread; he didn’t spew vomit with fire hose-like power against the kitchen walls; and he never once peed in someplace inappropriate. Sure, a couple of times he might have peed in my wife’s hand when she was holding him, but my wife thought this was actually rather cute.
In any case, he was the last of our hermit crabs, and after nearly a decade with anywhere from one to three in the tank at a time, we are on hermit crab hiatus. Why? Because they only live three or four years, and then they begin their pathetic, crawl-from-their-shells-and-go-naked death dance. And there is nothing more pitiable than a naked hermit crab: They actually look like they belong on a doughy bun as part of a clam roll on Cape Cod.
Yup, I am such a weenie vegetarian that I actually feel badly for old hermit crabs.
And so you can just imagine how pleased I was when the Whole Foods supermarket chain announced this summer that it was no longer going to sell live lobsters in tanks because it realized the practice just might be inhumane. (In the immortal words of the slightly perturbed adolescent I once was: Well, duh.) Granted, lobsters are merely big scary earwigs on steroids. But, still, I can’t think of many living things that deserve to spend their last days on this earth in a tank in a supermarket.
Of course, I also thought back on all the years I had kept hermit crabs in a tank. And suddenly I began to feel like a bit of a hypocrite. Sure, I wasn’t keeping the hermit crabs in a tank in the kitchen just so I could eat them. I was keeping them in a tank because in some weird, inexplicable way they kept my family and me company. Not great company, mind you. It’s not as if hermit crabs are golden Labs and I was tossing Frisbees for them, or tying paisley bandanas around their tiny crab heads. But they were company nonetheless.
And, in truth, I did allow one of our cats to sit on the screen on top of the tank and drool. This is, arguably, cruelty to crabs. Sure, I wasn’t letting the cat bat any of the animals around the kitchen floor like a little ball with a bell, or tease them by getting out the big pasta pots and boiling some water. But I can’t imagine the crabs enjoyed the way giganto-cat would block out the sun and pant heavily in their direction.
My sense is that Whole Foods has started a trend that’s worth watching. And, in my opinion, celebrating. Yes, lobsters are among the more repulsive things that we put on our plates, and I have no idea what the first person to eat one was thinking. One summer I was a seafood cook in a restaurant responsible for the bistro’s signature baked stuffed lobster, and in three months, I must have cleavered close to 500 of the creatures and boiled twice that many. For one season, I was the Hannibal Lecter of lobsters. And while I can’t speak to the level of pain a lobster can feel, it’s pretty clear that they have sufficiently developed nervous systems that they respond to outside stimuli.
Such as, for example, steel cleavers and boiling water.
Sure, I’ll miss having hermit crabs for company in the kitchen. But, for the moment anyway, I’m glad their old tank is empty.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 9, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.