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Hermit Crabs Humble Their Owner

I got up in the middle of the night the other night, gave our cat some treats, plunked a pellet in the bowl of our fish, Salman Fishdie, and sat down in the kitchen to watch our hermit crabs.

We have four: Croakie, Skeebo, Jo-Jo, and Freddy-Mickey. Maybe you can tell—our four year old named them. I would have called them Michael, Scotty, Dennis and Luc, after the old Chicago Bulls. My wife might have named them Andre, Louie, Francois and Marcel, after four guys I'd just as soon not hear about.

At first, we kept our crabs on a dab of sand in a tiny cage. But my wife found a Web site called The Crab Street Journal — let's hope that Rupert Murdoch can keep his mitts off this one — that gave instructions for building what they call a crabitat.

My wife and daughter outfitted a glass tank with a soft mulch bottom, a sandbox, a climbing fence, a salt water bathing pool, a spring water drinking pool, and a landscape of shells, twigs, stones, driftwood crags and spires.

A New York real estate ad would say of our crabitat, "Large loft, wrap-around windows, new fixtures, great views."

A fine location, too: right next to the wine cooler.

We spritz water into the crabitat to keep its humidity at 80 percent. Our crabitat is so lush that Elizabeth Arden could put a spa in there. Our crabitat ought to be in Architectural Digest magazine. I don't want to boast that it's opulent, but when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie come to town, they stay in our crabitat.

Some people find hermit crabs boring. Well, don't expect them to converse about theater and restaurants. But draw them a warm bath in a bowl, and they'll splash and clack like children at a birthday party. Let them dry by putting them on a sheet of paper towel, and they'll scuttle like they're racing in the Breeder's Cup.

The other night, while my wife and children slept, I watched our hermit crabs and remembered that their life expectancy can be 30 years.

You don't know if they are two or 20 when you get them. But 30 years made me think: our hermit crabs could be with us until our daughters grow up; they could be around (not to be morbid about it) as long — even longer — than me. To look at a hermit crab, tucking into mulch or climbing a crag, and feel vulnerable is humbling.

People project a lot onto their pets. But when Skeebo or Croakie raise a claw and clack on their glass, it's hard not to feel that you're being hailed, even if it means only, "Hey mister! We could use a spritz in here!"

In the middle of the night, when you worry about some of the things too stark to look at the brightness of the day, it's reassuring to see even a small sign — a tiny claw — wave back.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small