FLOYD, Va. – A Floyd woman has worked decades to figure out her life, but little did she know it would be a hermit crab that would help her claw her way to her purpose.
Mary Akers, 57, is a hermit crab breeder. Her life has revolved around the small crustacean for the past few years. She started Hermit House, which is now a nonprofit dedicated to changing the way people view the species.
“Currently, they are all taken from the wild,” Akers said. “They are looked at as good starter pets for children, put in a wire cage and they are told they live 6 months, and they give pellets to them to eat.”
After pouring her blood, sweat, and tears into a hermit crab she rescued from a neighbor, she realized the care they need is much more complicated than what meets the eye.
“I feed them six or seven times a day,” she said. “They eat things like grapes, chicken, or food that we eat. I have to mimic the ocean. The water has to constantly be moving. The temperature has to be the same. The solidity has to stay the same. There is a lot of things that could go wrong.”
Akers said her goal is to have the hermit crab reclassified as an exotic animal.
“My goal is to get them reclassified as exotic pets and all that goes with that,” Akers said. “So that way they are respected. They are not taken from the wild. They are given giant habitats. They are not cheap. They are not $6 because someone plucked them off a beach and threw them in a bag and shipped them off.”
Akers said there is a reason why she is so passionate about this journey.
“One of my favorite books to read to my kids is the ‘Lorax.’ You know, ‘I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees because they don’t have tongues,’” she laughed. “Well, here we are, I am the Lorax of hermit crabs. But I think I have always been really drawn to people and creatures that are voiceless. That don’t have a voice or representations or can’t speak for themselves. That people don’t understand and for me, they are creatures that fit all of those categories.”
She said her daughter refers to her as a ‘tender,’ which is a person who is always tending to something to help.
“I like tending to things like plants or things that don’t love you back, but you can see growth and thriving and can help,” she said. “One thing I have learned with crabs is that you just got to let crabs be crabs. Let them do their own thing.”
It is a recurring lesson Akers has had throughout her life starting back when she was a little girl growing up in Check, Virginia.
“I felt a deep connection with nature after we moved from Richmond,” Akers said. “I would go out in the woods with my dogs, and we had a big pond, and I would catch tadpoles and newts. I just loved being out in the country and would just spend hours out in the woods learning and observing. I love learning what nature could teach us.”
The beauty of nature distracted Akers from issues at home.
“My dad was an alcoholic for all of my life,” she said. “It was really hard to be unable to help him as a child. I could help him to bed and do things for him, but I couldn’t fix him. And throughout my life, I have had a series of things that I couldn’t fix.”
That reality became clearer to Akers as she got older.
“You have to learn to let people take their own journey and trust me, it is really hard with it is someone you love,” she said. “That is my motto. ‘Let people take their journey. You can’t fix everybody as much as you want to.”
Because of her love for nature, Akers said she initially wanted to be a marine biologist, but due to the difficulty of the study, she took on another career choice.
“I got a degree in ceramics and pottery,” Akers said. “I got married to my first husband who was military, so we moved around a lot.”
Akers said when she turned 30 years old, she made another career change in life.
“I think I had a midlife crisis or something, but I always loved writing,” she said. “So, I went back to school and got my Masters in creative writing. I published two short story collections and a non-fiction piece of work. I did writing for 20 years writing several novels and my agent wasn’t able to sell any of them. I felt like I was beating my head against the wall. It was just another one of those situations where I loved something, and it didn’t love me back. I loved writing, but it doesn’t love me back because it is not working.”
Akers said it wasn’t until she was 50 years old that she embarked on the hermit crab journey.
“I took in a hermit crab and did research on it,” she said. “I got it some friends because it is a colony creature. I just leaned into the crab life.”
Akers had no idea that it would take a hermit crab to join all the skills she’s learned throughout her life.
“All of my pottery is all hermit crab-related,” Akers said. “I’m working on a memoir that is about this experience with letting crabs be crabs. All of those weird things have come together. The science and nature, the writing, and the pottery all thanks to the hermit crab,” she laughed.
Akers said her knowledge about this species has improved leaps and bounds in comparison to how she was when she first started.
“In 2017, I had the crabs for two years and I was upsizing their accommodations,” she said. “Then I noticed the girl crab had eggs and what I thought was fighting but was mating. I didn’t really know what to do because the crabs are like a tiny bubble. We didn’t know what they ate or anything, so I had to figure all of that out. I told myself to give this a try.”
Because hermit crabs only breed once or twice a year, Akers went through a long process of failing and succeeding.
“One day, you’re elated, and they are all looking perfect and beautiful and the next day you’ve done something wrong and you don’t know what,” Akers said. “Is it the water, salinity, ammonia, nitrate? All those things go into the final product and when you succeed it is very rewarding.”
She had her first success after never giving up.
“I did something different and better each time and then finally, I worked so hard and in 2018, I got my first spawn, but it was only two that landed. I thought that was a lot of work just to have two. The second spawn I got ended up being 246 and I thought, ‘What in the world and I going to do with all of these babies.’”
That is when Crab Con was born.
“I talked to my crab posse with the Land Hermit Crab Owners Society,” Akers said. “We started a conference and people from all over came and adopted the first available captive-bred hermit crabs.”
Akers’ contribution has benefitted the science world.
“I am teaching the scientific community because they don’t have access to wild hermit crabs 24/7,” she said. “For example, we learned that each crab has a set of tiny dots on their claw which is kind of like a fingerprint for a crab to the scientific community. There is just so much to learn, and I am learning a lot as I go.”
She also does a lot of counseling to breeders as she’s adopted up to 200 hermit crabs from people all over the country.
“It is no question that when I see adopters of my crabs thrilled and loving them and posting pics of their babies, I get so much satisfaction seeing that they went to a good home and have a chance at a really good life with someone who understands their value.
As she continues her journey leaning into the crab life, Akers hopes her story inspires everyone to find their love and stick to it.
“You can find your tribe or colony or whatever because we are all so connected,” she said. “The opportunity out there is huge. It is such a simple thing to say but just don’t stop. Don’t stop. Just give it one more try. Just give it one more try.”
Akers also works closely with Josh’s Frogs. If you would like to learn more about Hermit House, Crab Con, or anything about the hermit crab, visit the links below: