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Shell Shock

You know that last-minute Christmas present you buy, the one that isn't on any list, that always turns out to be the most memorable?

Two Christmases ago, as my husband and I were working our way up and down the Toys R Us aisles, ticking off items on the lists, we wandered into a back corner of microscopes, do-it-yourself-volcanoes, and ... hermit crab kits.

It looked adorable. A small plastic container with a photographic backdrop of Fiji-like mountains, sand, a water bowl. Our children love nothing more than capturing and freeing hermit crabs at the beach, and so, spur of the moment, we bought them this.

I think it was $19.99.

They opened it Christmas morning, it got stuck on a shelf, and it wasn't until spring that we pulled it out and decided to inhabit it with crabs. Rather than spend the 20 or so dollars on mail-ordering the crabs, we went to Stonington Feed, our local store-for-every-pet-and-animal-need, and picked up two crabs. They were $3.99 each.

We also got food, which cost more than the crabs.

The 8-year-old named hers Shiny, for its particularly shiny shell. The 5-year-old named his Empire State Building because he is 5.

This was in May 2006.

We had the little Fiji cage all ready to go. I lectured the children briefly on the importance of caring for living things, and left them to enjoy their pets.

One minute later the girl was in tears because she had Shiny up on the window seat and “I just looked away (sob) for one second (sob) and he walked off the (sob) edge.” And crashed to the wood floor three feet below. The poor thing didn't stick his little antennae back out for three days.

But it was an important lesson, right off the bat. When mom says watch your crabs, watch your crabs.

The kit came with a book filled with hermit crab factoids: they must drink only bottled water. They like leaf lettuce but cannot stomach iceberg. They also enjoy grapes and should eat a taco chip or Saltine once a week (amen to that).

The weeks go by and we learn several things: Hermit crabs are ridiculously fast. Like, take your 5-year-old eyeballs off them for 1 minute, and they disappear. Also, it is hard to find them once they have disappeared. Also, luckily, Labrador retrievers do not want to eat them. Also, they like to hide under the couch, perhaps because of the plethora of taco chip crumbs under there.

Shiny and Empire State Building have a wonderful couple of months and then, while we are on Cape Cod in August, I get the cell phone call every mother dreads. One hermit crab has cannibalized the other and then, apparently, committed suicide. I tell the dog/crab sitter to dispose of the remains and never speak of this again.

There were appropriate tears shed upon our return to the empty Fiji Island cage. We decided, in case of illness, to toss the whole thing and start from scratch (it never occurred to us to just go crabless) and so we went back to Stonington Feed, where we purchased a 10-gallon glass fish tank, enough sand for burrowing, a piece of driftwood for climbing, a new food dish, a new water dish with a sponge for drinking to create less mess, two “Hermie Huts” (little fake half coconuts for private time), and various empty shells in case anyone felt like pulling a Jeffersons and movin' on up. Plus two new crabs. Rustle and Wrestle.

I am not even going to tell you how much I shelled out for all this. Let me just say that it is a rewarding family experience.

Rustle and Wrestle were much larger than Shiny and Empire State Building, and far more entertaining. Perhaps Shiny and Empire were intimidated by the mountains. Perhaps they were stymied by their small parcel of real estate. Whatever the reason, Rustle and Wrestle climbed and clambered and tap-danced their way around their neighborhood in a very endearing manner.

Oh, we loved those silly crabs.

Then one day, a couple of months ago, Rustle wasn't moving. When we picked him (her?) (it?) up, his whole body tumbled right out of the shell. Yuck. Even as sad a moment as that was (and let me tell you, the 8-year-old wept), it was equally gross. We all said a few words for Rustle, wrapped him in a Zip-lock, and sent him on his way.

Back to the store for another crab, this one named Shiny II. It lasted 24 hours. Crying this time.

The store gave us a free replacement, named Lucky for obvious reasons. 48 hours. No tears. Mad. And accusations (unfounded) hurled at poor Wrestle, who continued to just do his own hermit crab thing.

The 8-year-old has become pragmatic. She adopts a strategy. First, she will take a crab break till after the new year. Second, don't name a new crab after an old crab. Third, she says, don't ask for trouble with a name like Lucky. Since she is currently enamored with Lemony Snicket, her plan for her next crab is to call it Unfortunate.

Meanwhile, Wrestle soldiers on until sometime around the holidays, when he succumbs. We have many theories, none of which matter, of course. The 5-year-old sheds not a single tear, merely shrugs and mentions that Wrestle seemed to have a good time while he was alive. I pray someone says the same for me after I am gone.

So last month we went and got another one. The now-6-year-old has announced he no longer wants one, and so the 8-year-old and I go get one, which of course becomes two, and of course one dies within 48 hours. Don't even ask me its name. The one dubbed Unfortunate survives, thankfully. I am pretty sure the death is my fault, due to a hydration issue, and after going to two different pet supply stores, I find the plastic equivalent of Lake Hermit Crab, and bring it home and fill it with Evian and buy two more stinkin' crabs, so now we have three (in case the 6-year-old regains interest), and so far? So good.

Unfortunate, Speckle and Rocky. Wish 'em luck.

This is the opinion of Elissa Bass.
Article UID=95732fc5-d26b-435f-a464-96044ac9cc4a

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