Today my wife and I witnessed an act of barbarism: Coco Chanel, one of our two slightly older hermit crabs (by two weeks) was murdered by our newest crab, Mrs. Claws. In what is called a Shell War, Mrs. Claws wanted Coco’s shell and so started bullying Coco. We didn’t see all of what happened, and what we did see, we didn’t understand. In the end, Coco abandoned her shell and Mrs. Claws took it. By the time Coco found a new, far too small shell, her big claw had fallen off (a bad sign that she was very stressed), and within about 15 minutes, another leg had fallen off (an impossibly bad sign). She was dead by morning.
We feel responsible. We’ve never had hermit crabs before, so it’s been a real learning experience. We started researching Shell Fights (not knowing that’s what they were called) as soon as we saw Mrs. Claws shaking Coco, and Coco balling up in her shell. But when we’d figured it out, Mrs. Claws had already won. If we’d known more to begin with, maybe we could have saved Coco’s life. (For those of you who ever witness a Shell War, you should isolate the bully for at least three days to let the victim recover—and hopefully the bully will stop coveting the victim’s shell.)
More than the research angle, I personally feel responsible because I decided what to do before finding any hermit crab–specific information. My main pet experiences are with dogs, and I’ve learned to not intervene as dogs work out their power struggles. So, when my wife saw Mrs. Claws shaking Coco, I told her to let it happen. They’d figure it out, I said. I started researching right away, yes, but I was also the one who failed to stop the bullying. I was using what I knew, even though obvious logic says that the dynamics for one species are highly unlikely to be the dynamics for another species. And I already knew that, unlike dogs, hermit crabs are very shy and sensitive to stress. They need to be almost “coddled” when in captivity (read: they’re a lot harder to keep alive than we expected).
The final note of irony here is that Mrs. Claws was a rescue crab. When we decided to keep hermies as pets, we went all out and bought a really nice tank with all the accoutrements, did lots of research on how to take care of them, and asked plenty of questions of the local pet store owner—basically, everything we could do to ensure we’d be good pet owners. We set up our crabitat with three crabs: Sanders, Coco Chanel, and Shelley. But when Shelley died in the first week (likely from travel stress that was beyond our control), we went back and bought Mrs. Claws. We didn’t want the other two to get lonely; three crabs, to our mind, was the perfect number. They all got along for a few weeks, often sleeping huddled together in Beyonce, our plastic dragon “hide.” They looked so cute.
In other words, they looked like a family, which is what made the Shell War all the worse to watch. A sad day in our house.