Consider the poor hermit crab. He scuttles along in his secondhand shell, an amusing little fellow, but his life isn't always a bed of seaweed. He is loved enough—by raccoons and fish for eating, by motorists for crunching and by owners of pet farms, who pay kids a nickel apiece for hermit crabs and sell them for $3. But almost no one loves the hermit enough to let him be himself, especially in the Florida Keys, where he is pampered, painted and finally prodded into a weird new sport—crab racing.
For nearly a year now, the crab-racing capital of the world has been the Sandpiper, a bar and poolroom on Cudjoe Key, 130 miles south of Miami on Route 1. There was no previous capital. The crabs are status symbols at the Sandpiper. Their shells are sanded paper-thin for maximum speed and lacquered with Day-Glo reds and oranges or in pearlescent hues. Some are walked along the bar top on fine gold chains. Most are placed in a clear plastic bowl to await race time. There they try to climb the steep, smooth sides and end up frantically tumbling over each other.
Once the races begin, the crabs' young owners, like Romans at the Forum, fall into a state of excitation, calling to their crabs, "Go, Pervert," or "Come on, Swifty," or "Eat 'em alive, Fred."
One recent night a 58-year-old man named Glen Spence sat morosely amid the merriment, staring at his two crabs in the bowl. Finally he announced, "I want to withdraw my crabs from the race." He gently lifted Becky and Long John Joe from the bowl, tucked them tenderly inside his shirt and said to no one in particular, "That's torture. Don't they understand the mental anguish those crabs are going through?" But crab racers are not spiritual types. No one paid Spence any mind, and as the racing began in the lot outside, he stood alone, head down, beside the dark road. Spence and a friend had driven the 10 miles down from Little Torch Key, where he lives on his boat. Now, at 12:15 a.m., he was anxious to leave. He said it was the latest he could ever remember having stayed up, and he expressed the fear that "all crab racing can do is relieve the Keys of their remaining crabs."
Spence is a scuba diver, a sailor and the Albert Schweitzer of hermit-crab fanciers. He spends the warm months in Woodbury, N.J. and the rest of the year in the Keys, where in 1955 he began his one-man hermit-crab-appreciation-and-conservation campaign. The Keys were all but carpeted with hermits then, and campers frequently threw them in their fires, "glorifying in their agony," as Spence puts it. "The crabs would come out at night and crawl all over us, and that's when I got to liking them," he says. " 'By golly,' I thought, 'they're all right.' I took some home and played with them. I carried them around in my pockets, and soon they didn't run away. Like deer, crabs are afraid of movement, but I learned to move softly, like a limb in the breeze."
One day a year or two later, Spence was driving in northern Minnesota, toward a cabin he owned on Potato Lake, when a cop, checking out-of-state plates, signaled him to the shoulder. When the policeman walked over, Spence had crabs sitting upon his hands and arms, and a huge one as big as a softball perched on his head. The cop asked why they were there, and Spence said, "To teach them not to be afraid. To study how they act in strange habitats." The cop stared at Spence, who told him all about the crabs, how they ate little pieces of meat from restaurants along the way, and loved honey, Granola and coleslaw, and, Spence recalls, "He forgot to ask for my license."
Spence began to take his crabs everywhere. He took them to Key West, where he found people racing them in bars, but the competition wasn't organized. In New Jersey he built a playground for them in his cellar. The playground was equipped with slides—some crabs, says Spence, go down forward, some backward—a tightrope walk and a flagpole upon which one crab sat for a week before coming down. On cold nights they slept with him. They would hide under his pillows or snuggle up to his body. Sometimes on very cold mornings they would tug at his pajamas, he says, and he would turn up the thermostat. Once he brought some mangrove crabs North—he likes all kinds of crabs—but he returned them to Florida. "They were sad," he says. "I could see it in their eyes. They looked like they were crying."
The late '50s and early '60s were still the golden days in the Florida Keys. The shallow bight off Little Torch Key, where Spence lived on his boat, swarmed with grouper, snapper and lobsters. There were sea fans and all sorts of sponges. But the building boom had begun—motels, yacht basins, houses—and each one had to have its canal. Silt from dredging appeared in the bight, and Spence began to feel uneasy. But despite sadistic campers and bait and souvenir hunters, there were still lots of hermit crabs.
About that time Spence found Herman, the second-smartest hermit crab he has ever known. "He fell in love with me. I was Herman's pet, he wasn't mine," Spence says. One night he lay down on the couch with Herman on his chest and fell asleep. "When I woke up his antennae were tickling my nose, my mouth and my eyes, trying to figure me out," he says. "You'd be surprised at how many crabs, after talking to Herman, came right over to me."
One day Spence took Herman into a local bar, where he met an old drunk named Ralph. He sat Herman on the bar and said, "Hello, Ralph, shake hands with Herman." Ralph grabbed a claw and shook it. "Herman looked at us," Spence recalls, "and then he started drinking beer from a puddle on the bar, dipping his claw and putting it to his mouth. He drank 38 drips without stopping. He was the first crab on earth to ever drink beer in a bar." (The smartest crab Spence ever knew was called The Original Fat Charlie. Spence is reluctant to talk about him, but when pressed relates that he was the only crab able to escape from his quarters, "but the 'coons got him.")
In the last decade Spence has brought his hermits into many bars, and these are the three most frequently heard results:
1) "What's that coming out of your shirt?"
"Oh, that's Jo-Jo."
2) "Oh, my God, what's that guy got crawling all over him, spiders?"
3) "You know something, Glen? You're gonna fall in love someday, and you'll forget all about those crabs."
But Spence's passions are unquenchable. His life is a one-man mission of rescue and warning. He lives on a 36-foot trimaran, Coral Trail, that he started building in 1964 and will probably never stop adding finishing touches to. To make a living he takes out occasional charters, and in New Jersey he paints houses part time. He has never earned more than $5,000 in a year. When in Florida he spends part of most days exploring the wild mangrove shores of Big Pine Key and the many islets offshore. When he finds a hermit crab or two, he brings them to some remote backwater, where he hopes they will reproduce without anyone disturbing them. But what he usually encounters today is silt covering all, with no sign of hermit crabs.
Recently Spence found three small hermits on a mangrove islet in the Newfound Harbor Keys. "When I first came here these roots were covered with crabs," he said, "but the silt killed all the foliage they ate. Now there's only bugs."
Yes, everybody loves the hermit crab, but almost no one loves him enough to let him be himself. And the same is true of the Keys themselves. That is what Spence has always been afraid of. In the bight off Little Torch Key, the snappers, grouper, lobsters, sea fans and sponges are virtually gone. Only jellyfish—and silt—remain.
On the night he refused to participate in the crab races, all this weighed heavily on Spence's mind. A spotlight illuminated the racecourse, a plywood floor on which an eight-foot circle was painted. For each of 10 heats and two finals, the bowl of frantic crabs—they call it the Crab-o-dome—was inverted in the center of the floor; at a signal it was lifted. The first crab to reach the edge of the circle in each heat was withdrawn to compete in the finals. On this night there were 32 crabs, with shells from one to 3½ inches in length, and the big winner, for the fifth straight night of racing, was Alpha, a medium-sized crab with a fluorescent orange shell. Someone yelled, "He feeds that crab amphetamines." But Alpha's owner, John Mellor of the Big Coppit Crab Owners Association, replied, "I'd love to tell you how I train him, but I can't have it become public knowledge."
The ride back from the crab races was quiet after Spence said, "They have no feeling for the crabs. Just think how people would feel if giants grabbed them. They'd be in terror." At the marina, before he left his friend, Spence said, "The crabs are just the beginning of the end. Every man wants his place in the sun, and no one can stop him. How can you let one man build and not another? But they scream if I spear a fish for dinner. Then they go home to their houses on those dredged-out canals, with the silt destroying everything. But what can you do? People can't live in trees."