San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Pícoco’s Story: One Land Crab’s Long Journey

A few yearsago I had an unexpectedguest fromCosta Rica thatended up stayingat my home in RedondoBeach, California,for a year.The stowawaymade it throughthree airports undocumented,undetectedand passportless.When it revealed its presence inmy home, my response was astonishment –and a yelp of pain.The guest manifested itself in my suitcasein the form of a crab. It had stowedaway inside my swim fin for my returnflight from Costa Rica to the United States.It was one of those orange-and-purplecrabs that are quite abundant on the Pacificcoast – you know, the ones that scuttleunder the door into your cabina in the earlyhours of the morning and, sadly, can beseen flattened by cars on highwaysnear the coast.The suitcase the crabstowed away in was notopened for seven days. WhenI finally decided to unpack it,the swim fins were the firstitems I took out. While myfingers probed inside the finfor excess sand, I felt a painfulpinch on my index finger. Thereflexive jerk of withdrawing my handfrom inside the fin caused the crab torelease its arm along with its claw – stillattached to my finger!My immediate thought was to flush thejunk-species crustacean down the toilet.But then I realized I should wait until mywife got home, so I could show her the parasitethat had come back with us.My wife, a kindergarten teacher andthe patron saint of all living creatures,called the California Science Center, andwas told the center had many differentkinds of crabs and would be happy to takeour stowaway off our hands.She turned the offer down.“I can’t imagine that poor little creaturebeing put in some tank. Besides,” she said,putting the one-clawed crab to her ear,“this little guy is trying to communicatesomething to us.”She was right. That pinching probermade clicking and bubbling sounds whenyou brought it to your ear. We could onlyinterpret these noises as: “Take me back toCosta Rica!”We would have to wait a whole year toreturn our clawed, clicking guest to itsbeach.In the meantime, we gave it a name:Pícoco. We bought it a tank and created abeach-sand terrarium, with an electricheater to simulate tropical temperaturesand a little dish of water for it to dip intowhen it wanted.Pícoco was easy to please. Cheese, bitsof apple, tuna chunks – this animal did notfuss about its nutrition.One day we noticed bits of crab shell inthe terrarium. Soon after, we were surprisedto find that our guest’s claw hadgrown back. We learned later that Pícoco’skind molt and shed their carapacesas part of their growingprocess.The land crab, scientificallyknown as Gecarcinus quadratus,gets a bum rap. At timesit gets treated no better than acockroach because it is soabundant.These coastal scavengersaerate the soil with their tunneling,in addition to aiding the decompositionprocess and adding humus to nutrient-deficient sandy soils – truly, an importantcomponent of the natural world.At last, the time arrived for our annualtrip to the land of perpetual mucho gusto –with crab in tow!I wondered if we might be arrested fortaking the animal out of the country andthen trying to bring it back. What kind ofjail time, fines, persecution and publichumiliation would we suffer for being crabsmugglers?Before departure, I contacted my attorneyin Costa Rica and told her everything,including my intentions and fears. Herreply was: “Don’t worry! You are bringingback a natural resource to the country.”Departure and arrival went smoothly –even at Customs, when it came time to openthe suitcase containing Pícoco. The crab didits job and stayed put inside the fin for thewhole 11-hour flight and inspection, and theagent waved us through with a smile.In our airport hotel room, Pícoco wasput in the bathtub with a piece of cheese.Tomorrow the journey would continue witha three-hour drive to the ferry terminal inthe Pacific port town of Puntarenas, andthen on to the Nicoya Peninsula.Finally, we reached Pícoco’s home territory.About 200 meters from the high-tideline, we released Pícoco into the coastalbrush at Playa Guiones, on the country’snorthern Pacific coast.That the little creature survived throughall those airport transits – not to mention ayearlong uprooting – is a tribute to its constitutionalmakeup and tenacity.Pícoco left a mark on us forever.

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