Friday, March 14, 2014

A Farewell to Shortwave

Shortwave, the junior member of our crayfish pair, died early last week. She was our third crayfish after Craymer and Cray Cray, all being rescued from a classroom where they were due to be frozen after their use was done. The lab techs were happy to see them go to a good home.

Shortwaves molted exoskeleton
She had molted her exoskeleton a couple of days before and had looked healthy while waiting for her new one to harden. Because crayfish have a hard, acellular exoskeleton, they cannot grow without first molting (shedding) it. When they emerge, they have a new exoskeleton in place but it remains soft for a few days, allowing them to grow a bit. It also leaves them vulnerable to threats that wouldn't be normally. Crayfish often keep hidden during this period but Shortwave was always brash, and paraded around like a man at a party trying to pass of a threadbare thrift shop tuxedo as and Armani.

Shortwave shortly after molting
Deaths during molt are a known problem with keeping crustaceans at home. I knew about it and feared it. As anyone with an aquarium knows, there are many things that can go wrong in a tank, injuring or killing the inhabitants. My initial introduction on crayfish care was a mad dash of self-education and preparations, and while I still have plenty to lear  I was properly neurotic about checking the pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels, cleaning the tank and changing the water regularly. All of these were concerns but the biggest stress for me was the hardness of the water.

I'm not 100% sure what killed her in the end, and my lack of experience in crayfish care doesn't help. I worry that I played a part in it though. The night before we found her body, I accidentally scared her, causing her to take refuge in her favorite place between a large rock and the glass. I had worked to make sure it was not such a tight fit that she would get stuck, but I never thought about what squeezing her now softshelled body into such a tight space might do to her. Later on we found her back in the middle of the tank, moving funny - walking awkwardly backwards. I was worried that something was wrong but I wasn't sure - she often did weird and worrying things. The next morning she was dead.

It was only yesterday that I removed her old exoskeleton from the tank. I'm not sure why I left it in for so long, but sentiment was part of it. I miss her, as I missed Craymer before her. These feelings could probably not be reciprocated (there are some anecdotal stories out there that suggest that more species than we realize are capable of forming social bonds with other species - but I'd be shocked if that were the case here) but that's unimportant.

My feelings for my crayfish may not make sense to others, but it should. Emotions are personal; and although other people can sympathize or empathize with us, they can not join us. At best they can feel the same way on their own with you. It makes no more sense be be attached to a crayfish than it does an autographed baseball by your favorite player, or for that matter to be angry at the cashier for the company's refusal to take your expired coupon. The emotions are still there and that's fine.

We tend to think of a pet as something that loves us back.It's a common sentiment but also a confused one. In the movie Meet the Parents, Robert de Niro states that the love of a cat is better than that of a dog, because "...cats make you work for their affection..." That's the exact same justification I've heard to explain why dogs are better pets than cats. Both arguments prize the reciprocal love of pets. Others deny any reciprocation of feeling, pointing to the fact that your dog or cat would eat you if stuck in your apartment for days with no food. While that is true, it does not disprove a pet's bond to you, but it is still a disturbing thought to many.

photo from

It shouldn't matter. Many new mothers are distressed to realize they do not love their baby immediately after birth. That love will develop soon enough and before it does the new moms will take excellent care of them. Why? Because the baby needs it and to some extent, so does the mother. Does the baby love the mother immediately after birth? I can't say for sure but I'm willing to bet against it. For those mothers who do feel that unconditional love for their infants immediately, it would not lessen if someone pointed out to them that their baby cannot reciprocate it yet. Love does not require reciprocation (friendships etc are another matter).

I freely admit that I did love Shortwave, as I did Craymer and as I do Cray-Cray who has survived both. I loved them for their interactions with me (Shortwave's efforts to threaten me every time I passed nearby and pinch me when cleaning their tanks and Craymer's caution and sometimes obliviousness to the same); for their often kooky behavior (the absurd acrobatics of Craymer in his never ending quest to get access to the filter at the surface, the blaze attitude of Shortwave to the threats of the much larger Cray Cray, their never ending quests to rearrange the gravel, find forgotten food and bask in the bubbly rushing waterfall of fresh water being poured into the tank) and for the joy and laughs I got from watching them do all of this.

Craymer died in November. I had not taken any pictures and have no mementos of him. Shortwave was moved in shortly thereafter and I made sure to take photos this time. Her abandoned exoskeleton, largely intact before her death, now sits on a paper towel where I put it out to dry. There is not much left of it. When I tried to pick it up it disintegrated into a cloud of chelipeds, swimmerets, maxilla, abodminal segments and more. I scrambled to catch as many as I could but although I retrieved many of the big sections, many of the smaller ones swirled away from my fingers, content to stay home for a little longer.

Shortwave, RIP
This will have to do for poor Craymer as well, since there is nothing left of him but memories.