Ranger Leanne Sarco loves all creatures great and small.
By Barbara R. Saunders
Until oil from Deepwater Horizon gusher started washing up on the shore, interpretive ranger Leanne Sarco thought she’d found her dream job. She looked forward to teaching visitors about the ecosystem of Louisiana’s Grand Isle State Park, including its last wild beach. Now, with the area closed to recreational users, she’s following an unanticipated calling – rescuing hermit crabs from the contaminated sand.
After the spill, though she was happily still employed, Sarco confronted an empty beach. The area is so remote that few clean-up crews or media outfits ever visited. On a walk one day, she became aware that the path to making a difference lay right at her feet. There were hermit crabs struggling to wade through sticky pools of oil. So, she pulled them out and took them in.
The Hermit Crab Survival Project was born.
“You’re on your own!”
Authorities, including the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF), supplied little advice or encouragement. In fact, Sarco says, “Some agencies didn’t see the value of me doing this.”
There was one benefit to their lack of interest. Sarco lacks the licenses that would permit her to rehabilitate birds and mammals, but no such rules cover hermit crabs. She faced more formidable challenges than bureaucracy, though. The first was addressing the number of hermit crabs needing help; the second, figuring out exactly how to remove the oil, how to keep these small crustaceans alive, and where to put them once they were clean.
Sarco experimented until she found a procedure that works. She washes the outside of each shell with a mixture of water and unscented Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and gently swabs the inside with a Q-Tip soaked in a more diluted version of the same solution. Then she puts the crab in a tank of brackish water, where it stays for no more than 72 hours. (Her mother bought the first tank.) Crabs that survive the ordeal are released 20 miles away in saltwater marshes near Port Fourchon, an area that DWF has deemed safe for recreational fishing.
Teachers and volunteers to the rescue
Sarco’s educational mission has been revived, too. A group of 40 teachers recently came out to learn about the project. They’ll integrate their observations into this fall’s lessons about the spill, its impact, and how people can pitch in.
The unusual project quickly attracted supporters. Over 100 people have joined the effort. Working about two hours a day, volunteer teams pull as many as 500 crabs from the sand. Sarco estimates that 5,000 hermit crabs have been saved.
One of those volunteers is Miche Walsh, a California resident who leads a response project called TEAM Gulf. Walsh says that people native to the area have told her that the hermit crabs are a beloved part of their world. Many of them say they grew up watching the crabs along the shore and cannot imagine what it would be like if they were gone.
Though Walsh has also rescued cats and dogs in the area, she believes the Hermit Crab Survival Project delivers an important message. The famous photographs of seabirds with their wings weighed down by oil moved and outraged many of us, but “It’s not just the ‘majestic’ animals that deserve to live.”
The Hermit Crab Project is still accepting volunteers and needs supplies such as tanks and filters. To learn how you can help, visit the project’s Facebook page.
Barbara Saunders is the author of Ivan Pavlov: Exploring the Mysteries of Behavior, and writes professionally in areas ranging from animal protection to culture and society, as well as on analytical and interdisciplinary topics. Barbara is the recipient of awards from Science Books and Films, and from The Cat Writers Association. Contact her by e-mail or through her website.