Jul 12, 2010

The Luckiest Lobster

One place you absolutely, positively do not want to be if you're a healthy, middle-aged American lobster: trapped in a suburban grocery store in western Pennsylvania. But that's where this week's podcast begins.

It doesn't stay there long, though. Bonnie Hazen and Toni Leone take us on an adventure that carries us by car, by plane, and by boat toward a deeper understanding of those mysterious protective feelings that sometimes sweep over us -- well, some of us -- when we encounter our fellow animals -- um, okay, some of them. Trevor Corson, author of the bestselling The Secret Life of Lobsters, assists.

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Jad: Wait, you're listening--

Speaker 2: Okay.

Robert: All right.

Speaker 2: Okay.

Robert: All right.

Speaker 2: You're listening-

Robert: Listening

Speaker 2: -to Radiolab?

Speaker 4: Radiolab?

Speaker 5: Shots.

Speaker 2: From?

Robert: WNYC.

Speaker 2: C and NPR.

Jad: We should run just a classic intro.

Robert: Sure.

Jad: Hey, I'm Jad.

Robert: And I'm Robert. This is the Radiolab--

Jad: Podcast.

Robert: Yes, the podcast.

Jad: I've got to be honest, I have no idea what we're about to do. Whoa, what's this? Are we in a boat?

Robert: No, but we're going to be. This story actually starts in a supermarket.

Jad: Why did you give me the boat, as a tease?

Robert: Yes. That's a tease. That's a classic tease.

Jad: Give me some supermarket then.

Robert: I'll give you some supermarket.

Speaker 6: Soy sauce every [unintelligible 00:00:52]

Robert: That's Pat Walters. I asked Pat a few weeks ago to-

Jad: Hi, Pat, by the way.

Robert: Yes, Pat Walter is a regular person here.

Jad: Pat is one of our producers.

Robert: I said I want him to look for stories about old lobsters.

Jad: Why?

Robert: Well, I'm not going to tell you that right now, but you'll see later on why.

Jad: Come on, give me a hint.

Robert: No, I'm not going to give you a hint. He found a lady.

Pat Walters: If you could just introduce yourself.

Bonnie Hazen: What do you want me to say?

Pat: Whatever you want to say?

Bonnie: Hi, I'm Bonnie Hazen. I'm a registered nurse.

Pat: Bonnie told us a pretty crazy story.

Bonnie: To just tell you briefly, what happened was I had just gone to our grocery store.

Pat: Just any old day. It wasn't--

Bonnie: Just any old day. Nothing special about that day.

Pat: Where's this?

Bonnie: In McMurray, where I live, little McMurray, Pennsylvania. We're about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Robert: The year, Jad, is 1990.

Pat: August of 1990.

Bonnie: I was looking around, admiring the new seafood department, and I noticed this tank.

Pat: A lobster tank.

Bonnie: There were only two lobsters in the tank.

Pat: One she says was really small, but the other one--

Bonnie: This huge, behemoth that was just so massive.

Pat: How big is big in this case?

Bonnie: He was like from the tip of my finger to my elbow.

Jad: Oh, that's big.

Pat: She sees this big lobster and she's like, "That tank is way too small."

Robert: She thought the lobster look cramped.

Pat: She goes over to the guy behind the seafood counter and she's like-

Bonnie: I asked somebody, "Well, what are you going to do with this big lobster?" He just let me know that it was a promotional for the new seafood department.

Pat: It was just this big lobster that would get sent around to different supermarkets when they wanted to attract attention.

Bonnie: I just made a few more inquiries and worked my way up to the store manager and he referred me to the vice president of the chain and got--

Pat: Oh, straight away.

Bonnie: Oh, yes, because they couldn't answer my question. I probably was a little bit of a pain, like, "What are you going to do with him?"

Robert: This is the moment where the manager of the store decides, "Okay, we have a complaining lady, I think I can solve the problem." He makes her an offer.

Bonnie: The bottom line was that I could have him if I could arrange for him to return to Maine.

Pat: She could have him if she could somehow get him back to Maine?

Robert: Yes.

Bonnie: To Maine.

Robert: I don't know why, I guess all lobsters are from Maine, he thought. That's the offer.

Bonnie: Okay. How do I do that?

Pat: That's a good question.

Robert: Is this an unusual experience? This is one case.

Trevor Corson: This actually has a long history of people rescuing large lobsters.

Robert: That's Trevor Corson. He's the author of, what is it, The Secret Life of Lobsters?

Trevor: Yes, The Secret Life of Lobsters. Some people may remember the story of Mary Tyler Moore. In 1994, Mary Tyler Moore developed a crush on a large lobster, 12-pounder.

Robert: Who was named Mr. Grant?

Trevor: No. He was named Spike, in Malibu, California in a restaurant called Gladstone. She put up $1,000 for the right to rescue him, $1,000, and then Rush Limbaugh heard about this and he called the restaurant and offered $2,000 for the right to eat Spike.

Robert: Well, what did the restaurant do then?

Trevor: It refused. It still refused. There's been other cases since then.

Jad: Trevor told us that he's actually read about dozens of these lobster rescue stories.

Robert: Our lobster story is the original lobster story.

Jad: The very first.

Robert: I don't want to make the claim forever, for sure, but I'm just saying this, that if you Googled it, this is your opening lobster. It's still 1990. Bonnie having now left the supermarket, she's at home thinking now.

Bonnie: I didn't know what to do.

Jad: She doesn't have the lobster yet?

Pat: She has no lobster yet.

Bonnie: That was when I started calling some of the local animal organizations, Animal Rescue League, and the ASPCA, just locally trying to see if there was anybody out there that could help. There really wasn't. They're more into mammals, dogs and cats.

Pat: They'd probably never even heard of such a thing.

Bonnie: No, they basically told me, "Just forget it."

Jad: What are we talking, weeks of research here?

Pat: Seven hours.

Jad: Really?

Bonnie: Oh, I was on the phone for hours.

Pat: A little obsessed.

Bonnie: I had the time, and it was fun.

Pat: This had become a project for her.

Robert: Yes, it's a project.

Pat: Yes.

Bonnie: Then I called Cousteau Society because I was a member of the Cousteau Society and they suggested I call our local newspaper.


Pat: The press.

Bonnie: The article appeared in the Saturday morning paper.

Pat: Oh, really?

Bonnie: I have it right here, the cruisin crustacean.

Pat: Cruising like cruise?

Bonnie: Not cruising but cruisin, C-R-U-I-S-I-N crustacean. McMurray woman talks supermarket into releasing large lobster. [unintelligible 00:05:46] I'm just quoting now. Yes, it's a long story. It began Friday morning when Mrs. Hazen entered the Giant Eagle Supermarket. There in the store's newly opened seafood section, she encountered Nick.

Jad: Nick?

Pat: Oh, the lobster has a name.

Bonnie: Nick. [chuckles]

Jad: Nick.

Bonnie: Nick [unintelligible 00:06:02] the king of crustaceans was lounging in a large circular saltwater tank along with several lesser lobsters, they were just the little ones. Something in the way Nick moved spoke to Mrs. Hazen so she spoke to several Giant Eagle employees. Mrs. Hazen, who describes herself as environmentally active, told them she thought Nick might be happier back home in Maine than on someone's [unintelligible 00:06:23] I really didn't say that.


Bonnie: "Don't worry," Mrs. Hazen was told, Nick was a professional lobster, 70 years old.

Jad: 70 years old?

Bonnie: Yes.

Jad: Well, we don't actually know. There's no way to technically age a lobster perfectly. Estimates are from 50 to 100 years for those big suckers.

Pat: Wow.

Bonnie: I didn't say this. I'm not an environmental crazy. I eat lobster but I think they're over-harvested, Nick must be set free. I didn't say that either.


Pat: I see you pounding your fist on the desk. [crosstalk] Nick must be set free. [chuckles]

Bonnie: They told me I could have Nick if I promised to take him to the ocean. Mrs. Hazen has no money for such a trip. [chuckles] Sounds like a destitute. Anyway, I guess that's what appeared in the [unintelligible 00:07:08]


Pat: That could have been the end of it, but--

Bonnie: Saturday morning, we got an early phone call and there was this woman on the other end of the line.

Toni Leone: I'm Toni Leone.

Bonnie: She was saying she was in town.

Speaker 5: For my dad's funeral.

Bonnie: She was returning that afternoon to Maine.

?Speaker 4: No.

?Speaker 6: Yes.

?Speaker 4: To Maine?

Robert: Portland, Maine.

Toni: So I figured I'll just bring him back with me.

Jad: Why would you even think to do something like that?

Toni: Because he was a massive lobster in a teeny weeny tank that literally he could barely move in.

Robert: Now there's one other thing, remember she was back in Pittsburgh for her dad's funeral.

Pat: Was this in any way an homage to your dad?

Toni: Oh my God, he loved lobster. He absolutely loved to eat lobster.

Pat: To eat lobster?

Toni: Yes, he would eat them like crazy.

Robert: He also loved that his oldest daughter would do things that none of his other kids would ever do.

Toni: Yes, he would know that I would do something like that. He would expect me to do something like that.

Robert: Anyway, Toni and Bonnie, they were on the phone.

Pat: At first, Bonnie is actually a little suspicious.

Bonnie: I said, "Are you sure you're not just saying this to eat him, because I mean--"

Toni: I said, "No, I wouldn't eat anything this big. He's too old."

Bonnie: How she reassured me and she sounded very nice so we agreed to meet at Giant Eagle.


Bonnie: Of course, now I'm getting my daughter, my youngest daughter, "Oh my God, hurry up [unintelligible 00:08:32] we've got to go to Giant Eagle."

Toni: The woman met us at the store.

Bonnie: Because she had, I think it was a two o'clock flight or something like that.

Toni: She was there with the manager and-- [crosstalk]

Bonnie: I didn't know there was going to be a photographer there from our local TV station in Pittsburg. Anyway, Toni bought the biggest styrofoam cooler she could find.

Toni: Which really still was a little too small for him.

Bonnie: He barely fit.

Toni: We got him there, taped it up as best we could.

Bonnie: Put him in a van, and away they went.

Toni: When we got to the airport, we get up to the reservation desk, handed him to the stewardess and she put him in a chair in first-class.

?Speaker 4: What kind of a-- wait a second.

Toni: We were in coach. This lobster is up in the first class.


Robert: The plane then touches down in Portland, Maine, where the wildlife police are waiting.

Toni: Again.

Robert: Is anyone able to determine what everyone here seems to have assumed, that this lobster comes from Maine?

Toni: No. In fact, it probably wasn't caught here.

Robert: Why do you say that?

Toni: In Maine, you can't catch big lobsters like that, that's illegal.

Jad: Because the big lobsters are the ones that make more babies.

Robert: Oh.

Toni: They have size limits that they have on their lobsters.

Robert: You are bringing a lobster then to a venue that you reasonably suspect is a foreign place to him.

Toni: It's a foreign country.

Pat: Wow.

Toni: He could make friends.


Pat: The next morning.

Toni: The harbor patrol called and said, "Do you want to go with us, we're going to put him in the water?" We jumped on their boat.

Pat: A newspaper reporter went out in the boat with them that morning too.

Bonnie: Okay, this is from Maine

Pat: Bonnie read it to us.

Bonnie: Just after 1:00 PM, as the Marine patrol boat locked in 30 feet of water, Toni Leone carefully dropped Nick over the side. She watched him sink in the choppy, fog-shrouded water, then grinned, "I'm glad he made it." Isn't that nice?

Robert: It is nice, but here's the real deep question here. When we look at our fellow creatures and we decide, "Well, who do we want to protect?" We include some groups and we exclude others. It seems almost entirely arbitrary. For example, why would someone save this lobster?

Pat: Yes. I mean, a lobster is not cuddly by any stretch of imagination, certainly not soft.

Robert: Was it it's beauty? Well?

Pat: I actually think that lobsters are very attractive.

Robert: Really? Do you always think that?

Pat: I have always thought a lobster is-- it's-- how can I say this appropriately for radio? They're muscular and curvaceous at the same time. They're like Popeye arms, those claws. Then there's that nice curving tail, and I just think that lobsters--

Robert: You likely have a hunky lobster calendar. Lobsters of 2008.

Pat: I'm not talking about that on the radio.

Jad: That's just weird of you. That can't be the reason why people keep saving lobsters.

Bonnie: No.

Robert: No.

Jad: So what is it?

Pat: I think that it has partly to do with our obsession with longevity. When it's one that big and that old, suddenly the rules are changed. Here is a creature that has made it through all the tests of life, and it deserves our respect now.

Bonnie: He was unique, he was special. I just felt that he just didn't deserve to be in that tank at his age. Everything converged at that moment. That's the only way I can explain it is-- I just went with it.


Jad: A story about lobsters. Thank you, Pat.

Robert: I thought of dropping Pat into the ocean along with Nick, but when I had him upside down, I realized he was kind of attractive in his own right.

Pat: As if you could pick me up.




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