Hermits: The Unfortunate Victims of Society

It was an unusual discovery. As the mercury soared to triple digits last October in Yuma, Ariz., a hermit crab later named "Hermie" was found near a drip irrigation line in a state park - a victim of the crustacean pet trade. More than likely, he was purchased at a local pet store and then dumped near a canal behind the park’s headquarters before being rescued.

A few weeks earlier and some 2,500 miles away in Ocean City, N.J., a young boy was seen with a single hermit crab purchased as a vacation souvenir from a local beach shop. This crab was a victim, not just because his shell was tastelessly painted to resemble a soccer ball, but because he was one of thousands of other hermit crabs bought as mementos. The thoughtless acquisition of these creatures isn’t confined to beach retail: In March at the annual conference of the National Science Teacher’s Association, Carolina Biological Supply gave away hermit crabs as a promotional gimmick.

What is the fate of these crabs? Odds are they’re already dead, or otherwise forgotten and dying. Despite this likelihood, the trade in hermit crabs remains a booming business as people seek out "exotic" pets who won’t pee in the house or vomit on the carpet.

There are 500 to 600 species of hermit crabs, most of whom are native to tropical climates like the Caribbean, South America, Africa, and Australia. Some hermit crabs can also be found living along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. Though most hermit crabs are small, some of the more exotic species can be as wide as a foot or more, the largest being the coconut crab, who has a leg span of more than three feet.

Most of the hermit crabs sold as pets in the U.S. are purple pincher crabs or Ecuadorian hermit crabs. Purple pinchers are native to the Caribbean, South America, and the Florida Keys, while the Ecuadorian crab comes from the coasts of Ecuador and Chile. Since hermit crabs don’t breed in captivity, every crab in the pet trade has been taken from the wild. They are then packaged and transported potentially thousands of miles away for resale to live, often quite briefly, behind the plastic walls of an aquarium tank.

There are no reliable statistics on how many hermit crabs die during transport, get sold, or what their fate may be once sold. Shell Shanty, Inc., a hermit crab wholesaler headquartered in New Jersey, reported in a 2000 New York Times article that it sells a million crabs each year. Though such companies are apparently licensed by the government, the trade is largely unregulated.

While some crabs may end up in the care of a small contingent of dedicated hermit crab aficionados able to meet the crabs’ physical and behavioral needs, the majority are purchased as novelties and die quickly of stress, ignorance or neglect. Hermit crab enthusiasts raise their crabs in "crabariums" and "crabitats," but the fate of millions of others is sealed upon capture in the wild, when they are later shipped around the globe and sold as "low maintenance," "easy care," "unusual," and "very entertaining" pets.

But as Tammy Snook, Hermie’s temporary caregiver, quickly learned, "These are not animals who can simply be thrown into an aquarium tank and fed, as they have unique physical and behavioral needs that must be met to sustain their health."

Indeed, according to a variety of Internet sources, which do not provide consistent advice, hermit crabs must be provided with a temperature and humidity controlled environment. If they get too hot or dry, they’ll die. They also need an appropriate type and depth of substrate to facilitate the molting process. A variety of empty shells are essential for crabs to find new shells to move to as they grow. A diverse habitat containing hollow logs, caves, driftwood and other materials for exploration and cover is also important, as is the need for crab companionship.

Hermit crabs need access to fresh and, depending on the species, salt water. Chlorinated tap water can kill them, and the iodine in table salt, if used to make salt water, is harmful to crabs. Furthermore, if the water is too deep, the crabs could drown. Crabs also need adequate calcium in their diets. As omnivores, they eat most foods, but are sensitive to pesticides, and certain food preservatives can be dangerous.

Old food and crab droppings must be cleaned up, and fresh food and water provided daily. Their tank or "crabitat" must be completely cleaned without using soap or store-bought chemical-based cleaners that can harm them, and substrate should be replaced at least once a month. Since crabs are susceptible to fungal and bacterial infections, they may need to be regularly bathed in fresh and salt water or administered antibiotic treatments.

Not surprisingly, given such care requirements and the fleeting novelty of a crustacean as a pet, most hermit crabs usually do not live long in captivity. This, along with their relatively cheap price, may explain why some refer to them as "disposable" or "throwaway" pets.

As for Hermie, though he will never be returned to the wild, he’s on his way to a new home in Southern California. He will live out his life with other rescued crabs under the care of an experienced hermit crab enthusiast.

You Can Make a Difference

  1. Don’t purchase a hermit crab (or any other living animal) as a vacation souvenir. Explain to your children that hermit crabs are better off in the wild than in captivity.
  2. Don’t purchase any exotic pets. They require specialized care and may have been taken from the wild and transported thousands of miles, often in miserable conditions.