“Tropic Blunder”

Regarding that exotic and now infamous pet craze of the late 1980s, the Sea Snug, it is clear that the adaptations of life are limitless, but the tolerance of the consumer is certainly not. It began with the rediscovery the Meka island chain in the South Pacific. To marine biologists they proved more stunning than finding a land where Big Foot and Nessie are not only real but play tennis and host game shows. Among the newly indentified animals was a peculiar form of echinoderm. Adapting to the unique tide pools on the largest island, this relative of the sea cucumber had done the impossible. It had adapted into a form that lived in the brackish, shallow pools and dry land. Other groups of the creature were found miles inland. They were completely terrestrial.

Finding a new species is rare. Indentifying a new genus, more so. This discovery was staggering. The animal represented not just new species but new genera, a new class and perhaps a new order of animal. Some even argued for the creation of a new subphylum of Echinozoa terrestrialis. Biologists still debate their exact taxonomy. “Terra Holothuroidea” became the place holding term for scientists as the animals awaited official classification and subsequent genus and species names. Colloquial names don’t come from stringent rules. Yet, “Land Cucumber” didn’t really work. Photos of scientists and sailors on Meka holding the corpulent and apparently fuzzy creatures like pet cats or rabbits lead to “Meka Bunnies” or “Munnies” being coined. Those names were quickly dropped. Oddly enough, in fact quite shockingly, “Snuggle Worms” became their popular tag.

The photos appeared on TV and magazine covers. Public attention increased. The images were free press for entrepreneur Willis H. King before he even thought up a sales pitch that would add another name for Terra Holothuroidea, and secure it in pop culture history. King saw more in those photos than an odd, new animal. He saw profit. The idea was simple. People loved what was in the pictures. So, bring them to the people. And sell them. The Snuggle Worms, not the scientists and sailors. To ease concerns of exploitation, King formed a partnership with universities involved in Meka Island research and Polynesian conservation groups. Funds would go to preserve island life, and limit harvesting of unique, indigenous species. He sold it as a union of ecology, science and capitalism. The Meka Islands were a US Protectorate. That made legal issues and importation simpler.

His plan a reality, careful harvesting began. Soon after, Snuggle Worms did their slow wriggle on US shores. Now King needed a brand name. There was confusion of this land‑evolved Sea Cucumber with the term Sea Slug. (Sea Slugs being gastropods like snails, and nothing like echinoderms that are far less viscous.) King used the confusion. The “Sea Snug” hit the US pet market. Anyone who thought selling this new animal would be a specialty market never spoke to Willis H. King. National ads ran on TV: “Snuggle up with the latest from science! The Sea Snug! Beloved by millions. Yours for far, far less. Own something from far, far away! Exotic. Lovable. And now available! Order today. Quantities of this unique pet are limited! Only a special agreement allows their importation. It can be canceled at any time. Own the creature no one else has in your town, perhaps your state. Be the first to hug a Snug! The Sea Snug. Order now!”

If King’s PR was believed, the world was excited to buy Sea Snugs. (‘Exited’ would not describe George Lucas who was still annoyed at being unable to block the use of the term “Star Wars” for Reagan’s missile defense program, SDI. “Far, far away” evoked that film franchise yet again. Although the creator of the phrase “pie in the sky” could claim greater aggravation for more material reasons concerning SDI.) To buy a Sea Snug you needed a lot more money than the cost of a rabbit. The cost was even more than exotic pets like giant, bird eating spiders, supply of live birds included. King claimed the initial high cost was offset by saving on food as Sea Snugs ate rarely. This also justified the cost of the special Snug Chow, also exclusively sold by King Import, Ltd. Another cost of ownership, such as the possibility of catching some rare, tropical disease from your Sea Snug was downplayed as highly unlikely. It was never said to be impossible, just highly unlikely.

The Sea Snug deluxe kit came with a tropical-themed terrarium. However, the ‘Snug was sold as a pet that could fit right into the home just like a cat or puppy without a special habitat like a turtle or fish needed. Yet the documentation that came with them included a clear, BOLDFACED WARNING not to let Fido or Fluffy mistake the fuzzy, cylinder-like creature for a chew treat or cat toy. (At least they didn’t scream.) The Sea Snug itself didn’t need toys, playtime, or discipline. Although it was suggested, small barriers be placed around high-traffic areas, heating vents and stairs, and that electrical outlets be covered. Otherwise, ‘Snugs were less demanding than cats, dogs, or even gold fish. Brochures assured they would always be there to pet, and always loving when you stroked its luxurious coat. However, without generations of people touching artificial textures, “luxurious” might not have met with tactile scrutiny. Sea Snug “fur” was nothing like hair, fur, or feathers. It was a highly modified form of the microscopic tube-arms called pedicellaria that cover echinoderm skin. They had evolved into a flexible insulating layer that kept its surface moist and prevented dehydration in the tropic heat. It looked like fur, but felt a lot like doll hair. Still, the fact that Sea Snugs were alive and moved gave the owners more psychological satisfaction than an inanimate teddy bear, or taxidermied pooch.

If the ‘Snugs could love like a cat or dog or even goldfish was doubtful. However, they would accept extended periods of petting as if enjoying the experience. Biologists said this was probably due to a strategy of playing dead. The behavior likely developed to survive the rare event the echinoderms met a curious predator. Nevertheless, they acted like pets. They looked like pets. Mostly. They had no eyes to look back at fondling humans to express joy, irritation, or ambivalence. But for many they were fine, quiet company. They were certainly a symbol of disposable income. More than one editorial cartoon had the tubular animal drawn as the “S” element in a mock dollar sign. Questions on the ethics of owning such a rare beast rose from the inability to qualify their numbers in the wild. Yet, some truths were learned about the “domestic” Sea Snug.

Yes, they did eat very rarely.

Yes, their “fur” was soft to stroke.

Yes, they were reminiscent of the Tribbles on Star Trek.

Yes, it was au courant and a display of financial success to have one.

And, yes, once they finally excreted their specially formulated Snug Chow, it let loose gasses from the sulfur loving bacteria in their guts. That horrid odor was described as all the bad smells of the Earth ever known being manifested and amplified into one small, greenish-brown pile.

And, oh dear yes, entire families left homes and put them up for sale, at a loss, just to flee the lingering stench of Sea Snug doodoo. Not to mention the acid content of it that was strong enough to eat through bedding, the carpet and stain almost all manner of flooring. The Sea Snug’s intestinal legacy possibly inspired the aromatherapy craze. People would sniff anything to clear their noses and minds of the olfactory horror that had shattered domestic bliss. Obviously, this unknown trait of the exotic creatures negatively impacted sales. It was thought it would also negatively impact Willis H. King. Instead, when King learned of what he had stepped in, he began to laugh. He did not stop laughing even when the lawsuits started. Because of the carefully written contract each Sea Snug buyer had to sign, King was indemnified from what hit the fan, even “what” as strong as that from a Sea Snug. Nevertheless, some legal attacks cited pain and suffering of an egregious nasal kind. Several years later, some of these civil cases are still ongoing. King’s laughing jag is believed to have finally ebbed.

The Sea Snugs went to other homes to live out their lives. Ones where people had severe olfactory dysfunction. Most went to zoos, thrilling children and causing King-style giggle fits when they learned of the reason no has them in their homes anymore. Some may have been released to the “wild” in neighborhoods and parks. There were reports of a small population in Central Park near the East drainage grates. Although it is unlikely that a species that evolved with few natural predators could survive in an environment with so many like an urban park. Especially one in New York City with its population of alligators.

The Terra Holothuroidea taken from Meka Island did one thing that King imagined. They preserved their kind back home, because no one ever wanted a Sea Snug or anything else brought from that place ever again. Today, only the rare scientific expedition and wildlife film crew ventures so far out into the Pacific to disturb them and the other unique life of the islands. Meka remains an unspoiled habitat. Thus, all’s well that ends well. As long as it does not come from the end of a Sea Snug.

BSL