Monday, October 8, 2012

The Morality of Hermit Crabs and the Treatment of Animals

“Mommy, Mommy, look what I won!” Jenevieve ran up to me, clutching a little plastic container in both hands. Inside the container skittered a small hermit crab. It had dark but bright eyes on thin stalks, and a thick hand painted shell. Three flowers intertwined over the top, one pink, one blue, one lavender.
“You won?” I repeated, looking at my niece. I had entrusted Jenevieve to her cousin’s care so that I could keep an eye on the boys. When I gave the girls $5, I had not expected them to come back with something living. I peered down the street and saw the booths. Typical “get a ball in the cup” games which offered a variety of prizes from rodents to crustaceans to fish. Concern for the poor creatures flooded me. It was a cold October evening, and the weather only promised to get colder. Though the workers all bundled about in jackets and hats, the animals had nothing but plastic containers to shield them.
“I won! I’m going to name her Amethyst,” Jenevieve said. She tilted the container so that she could see the little crab better and then smiled up at me. “Isn’t she pretty?”
I nodded that she was, but my heart sank. This was one of those areas in which I am very passionate. Though I am not vegan, I do not believe that animals should be treated this way. How could these workers know that a child who won would actually take care of the pet, let alone not abuse it? Not to mention the condition the poor creatures had to be in. I knew a great deal about hermit crabs. My roommate in college had specialized in their care. Her favorite baby, a coconut sized hermit crab named Millicent, spent a great deal of time in our bathtub and on our kitchen table, participating in our lives like a mute member of the family.
Jenevieve pulled me from my thoughts with a swift tug to my tartan scarf. “Look at her curling up in her shell, Mommy,” she said.
“She’s probably cold,” I answered. Readjusting the sling with baby Corrim inside, I beckoned my children closer. “We need to get home now. That hermit crab needs to be some place warm and humid.” My own personal issues aside, we had a little crab to take care of, and from the way the evening temperature was dropping, we needed to get home quickly.

An Awkward Conversation
Had we not had the hermit crab, leaving the carnival so early would have cause a great ruckus. But all of the children, including baby Corrim, were fascinated by the tiny crab and her curious tappings. Hustling everyone into the car, I drove us home, taking time to drop my niece off at her mother’s and thanking her for coming. When we returned home, the warm fragrant scent of white and red bean chili greeted us.
“I’ve got to feed Amethyst!” Jenevieve yelled.
“I’ll make her a house!” Ishtan shouted.
“I want a crab too!” Saja wailed.
Amidst all the chaos, I closed the doors, hung up jackets, and went to pop the cornbread in the oven. I had mixed everything up ahead of time so that it could start baking as soon as we got home. The noise all around me seemed to fade away though as I considered the conversation I needed to have with my daughter. She was a smart little girl, and she needed to understand the morality of such events. That just because something was fun did not mean it was harmless. With such a tender heart for animals, she needed to recognize that not all those who sold animals loved them. That’s why we never bought anything from pet stores.
Jenevieve brought her little container to the table and sat down. She had a bottle of crab food left over from the three hermit crabs we had had when she was a toddler. As she sprinkled some of the food into the container, she looked at me intently. “Why aren’t you happy, Mommy? Don’t you like Amethyst?”
            Ahhhhh. Yes. If my daughter was smart enough to recognize that her mother wasn’t happy, then surely she was old enough to understand the implications of morality in an issue such as this. At least, that’s the hope I latched onto and hoped for.
            “No, honey,” I said. “It’s not that at all. I like Amethyst a lot. I just…” Taking a deep breath, I pulled the chair out and sat down beside her. “It’s just that we don’t play games where they give animals away as prizes because it isn’t right.”
            “I won though.”
            “I know you did. But you see, the people who buy these animals don’t take care of them like they should. Look at Amethyst. She needs a warm humid environment, and they had her out tonight with nothing but the plastic to keep her warm. That’s not good for a hermit crab. It isn’t kind. And we don’t know how they take care of them when we aren’t there.”
            “The man seemed nice.”
            “I’m sure he did. People can always seem nice, and they may even think they are, but they don’t always do nice things to animals.” I then tried to explain to her the morality of humane choices and choosing to frequent organizations and stores which followed such practices rather than those that disregarded them. Though I tried to keep my words understandable, I knew I was losing her. So I had her restate it to me. She did, the troubled expression on her face growing.
            “You didn’t do anything wrong, sweetheart, because you didn’t know. But we don’t want to encourage them to keep treating animals that way.” 

Childlike Logic
            Jenevieve pursed her lips. She had thin lips just like her father, and she could pull the same contemplative look as her dad too. “So what they’re doing isn’t good and we shouldn’t do it,” she said, looking at me.
            “That’s right, honey.”
            “But the animals aren’t going to be very happy or healthy there, are they?” she asked.
            “No, probably not.”
            “So I saved Amethyst.” Jenevieve began stroking the top of Amethyst’s shell, a satisfied smile spreading on her face. “I want to go back tomorrow and save all the rest of the crabs too!”
            “Honey, we can’t do that. If we keep playing the game, then they’re going to keep making money and they’re going to keep on doing it.”
            “But if we don’t, then they’re going to be sad. I don’t want them to be sad. I don’t like it.” Jenevieve looked at me, very puzzled and troubled.
            “I know. There’s nothing we can do for them.” I thought about trying to explain to her reporting such matters, but it would only confuse the issue.
            “Isn’t that mean though? If we could help and we don’t?”
            This was one battle of many battles I was losing. My dear child’s conviction rivaled mine, but it drove her in a different direction. She could not understand how participating in the games would only fuel the business. All she saw was that immediate need: to rescue the hermit crabs, goldfish, mice, and rabbits. All of them. And I was at a loss for words. 

Too Heavy a Topic or an Unavoidable Issue
            The night did not pass as cheerfully as any of us hoped. When Dej arrived from work, he was startled to find that we were not nearly as chipper as he anticipated. He did not help matters much by assuring Jenevieve that this whole situation wasn’t a big deal.
            “You can’t go and save them all,” he said. “Besides, they don’t need to be saved. Mommy’s right that it isn’t the best place for them, but it’s better than where they might be. At least they don’t have to worry about being eaten alive. That wouldn’t be fun, now would it?”
            Somehow, even with that macabre description, he managed to pull a smile out of Jenevieve. She ran off to her room with Amethyst in hand. All of the pressure of the last conversation seemed to have vanished from her shoulders.
            “Well…I guess that settles that,” I said to Dej.
            “Don’t look so annoyed,” he grinned. He came up behind me and slipped his arms around me, hugging me close. “She’s too young to be thinking about this right now. They aren’t torturing the animals. They keep them clean. They’re just not as thoughtful as they should be. And if you don’t wait until she’s older, she’s going to bankrupt us trying to save them all.”
            “To not talk about it would have been hypocritical,” I said.
            “She’s just a kid, Jade.”

A Sticky Question of Morality I Still Haven’t Solved
            I wasn’t convinced. It still bothered me. The truth of the matter was that there was very little that any one could do about this matter. And Jenevieve’s questions had struck at a nerve within my own heart. Should I ignore the suffering or discomfort of a small group by boycotting the provider so that I could achieve a greater good?
            I have always abhorred concepts such as “the ends justify the means” and “just required for the greater good.” A lot of people can be hurt in that. Animals too. So what was I to do? It wasn’t feasible to save every one of those creatures. But to save some…was that worth it even it continued something I thought immoral?
            If any of you have wisdom, please feel free to share it. I don’t pretend to have the answers to this one. Life seems to be very much about learning truth and its nuances and then learning how to apply it. I did, of course, call the carnival manager. The booth vendors were all from the same company in that arena, and he listened to my concerns but ultimately assured me that they treated all of the animals humanely and there was nothing to worry about.
            These matters are difficult to think about, but sometimes I think that it is important to start with thinking and not let it pass by. Perhaps then I will know the best course to take.

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