A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

If you pour salt on garden slugs, do they shrivel up and scream?

June 27, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Is it true that if you pour salt on garden slugs they will dehydrate … and scream?

Cecil replies:

Cecil loves fielding calls on the radio, because they enable him to keep his finger on the throbbing pulsebeat of America, disgusting though that experience can occasionally be. Take the subject of regional vermin, for instance. In an era of national homogenization it is amazing to discover the rich variety of crawling things that infests the different corners of the U.S. There are the legendary palmetto bugs of Florida, the killer mosquitoes of Minnesota, and now the giant slugs of Seattle.

This last one in particular has been a real eye-opener. Previously I had always thought of Seattle as charming — but no more. Now I know that beneath those mountains and trees there lies a seething chamber of horrors.

True, there are slugs in other parts of the country. But they are nothing compared to the Seattle variety, which thrives in the region's damp climate. The Seattle slugs (and boy, wouldn't that make a great name for a baseball team?) can be as much as four to five inches long, three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and a ghastly brownish-white in color. Hordes of these creatures can descend on your garden and eat all your lettuce overnight. They may turn up in your driveway, your flower box, even — yuck — your basement, leaving a telltale trail of slime behind. Some say that slugs are a leading cause of death in Seattle, owing to the fact that so many people are grossed out of existence. A few slugs even grow up to become cartoonists for famous newspapers, increasing their power to wreak havoc a thousandfold.

But enough of this scare talk. It's true that slugs will dehydrate if you pour salt on them, although I must say that the thought of standing there watching while the slug shrivels up seems uniquely unappetizing. However, the slugs don't scream, for the simple reason that they don't have any vocal apparatus. No doubt what you hear is your own guilty conscience, which is tormenting you for destroying God's creatures. Or maybe it's the hiss of desiccating slug fluids. I don't know, and I don't want to know.

A better method of dealing with the slug menace is to put out a pie tin filled with a half inch of beer. The slugs drink the beer, pass out, and drown. (Or so they tell me. I did not stick around long enough to see this actually demonstrated.) You can also use a miracle slug killer called metaldehyde, which was originally developed as a solid fuel for camp cookstoves. One day in the 1930s some campers in South Africa left a can of metaldehyde out all night and awoke to discover it surrounded by recently deceased slugs and snails. Aha, said the campers, slugicide!

On the other hand … well, maybe you can just learn to love 'em. I'm told that the town of Montesano, Washington, has an annual slug festival, in which the locals dress up the slugs in little costumes and have slug races. Supposedly there are even slug cookbooks. There are those who regard this as tragic evidence of the effect of excessive rainfall on the human psyche, but who knows, maybe you could get into it. I'll tell you one thing, though — next time you're invited to a pot-luck in Montesano, think twice.

In defense of Slug City, U.S.A …

Dear Cecil:

As a former Seattleite, I feel obligated to straighten you out in the slug department: (1) Elma, not Montesano, is the home of the infamous slug races; (2) four to five inches long is only average; (3) slugs aren't just brownish white, but come in a rainbow of colors, including green with yellow spots; (4) while some slugs will fall for the ol' beer-in-the-pie-tin trick, salting is much more effective. I once melted 178 in my front yard alone. (Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz, the one where the witch melts? Same idea.) (5) Never heard of the slugicide you mentioned, but I still vote for salt. No bodies.

Dear Cecil:

While the lush and glorious environment of western Washington State does indeed produce many species of the wily slug, Puget Sound's greatest natural wonder is the obscene geoduck (pronounced GOO-ee-duck). A very large (four by seven inches) clam found in Puget Sound, the geoduck has a crude phallus of a neck that is a source of endless wonderment to visiting back-eastern swells such as yourself. One find geoducks in Seattle markets — they are quite a delicacy — with the massive neck, six to eight inches long and yellowish in color, hanging out of the shell like a giant uncircumcised penis. Not a sight one soon forgets.

As for slugs, squishing one between bare toes while walking in the post-sunset cool of a Seattle evening is unquestionably the grossest experience on earth. Believe me, I know.

Make that Slug and Geoduck City, U.S.A.

Dear Cecil:

My thanks to Tamara K. for clearing up the matter of slugs. As a native Seattleite on a two-year pitstop in D.C. I was appalled at your unsophisticated ignorance of slugs.

But it was Paul O.'s comments about geoducks — those phallic mollusks found only in Puget Sound — that prompted me to write. My alma mater, Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington, claims the geoduck as its mascot. Our teams — soccer, skiing, swimming — are called the Evergreen Geoducks. Every graduation the 500-odd graduates solemnly sing the geoduck fight song, written by ex-reference librarian extraordinaire Malcolm Stilson:

Go geoducks go

Through the mud and slime let's go

Siphon high

Spit it out

Swivel all about

Let it all hang out.

Cecil replies:

"Five hundred-odd graduates," eh? I'll say.

The last thing you will ever have to read about this disgusting subject

Dear Cecil:

How could you think of addressing the slug question without consulting your faithful Seattle correspondent? Allow me these few comments:

First of all, I concur: slugs are repellent beyond any other life form. Imagine, if you will, hiking up the steep slop of Mt. Baker. The trail is at an 80 degree angle. Suddenly, in front of your nose, appears a huge (we're talking nine inches) yellow-green phallic object, glistening obscenely in the feeble light. Imagine, all the worse, stepping on the aforementioned abomination! How many mysterious hiking deaths could be explained by merely checking the spot on the trail from which the deceased fell for the telltale silver splotch? And then there are the ebony cannibal slugs of Mt. Rainier who devour one another along trailside. I myself was once a patient at the University of Oregon health center when I damaged my knee by falling off my bike, having run over a slug — I was slimed right off the path.

Now, how to kill the little buggers. The beer-in-the-tuna-can method has never been at all effective for me. The slugs hang over the edge and sip at the beer, but very few have ever fallen in. (They do seem quite partial to beer, however.) As for salt, some say it is extremely cruel, a feature that undoubtedly makes it more attractive to many. But the main disadvantage is this: if you salt or otherwise chemically attack slugs, they dump all their slime in their death throes — years' worth at once! The stuff is ineradicable and you are stuck with a yard full of repulsive silvery slime globules.

I once entered the yard of a neighbor and found eight or ten slugs, impaled on a shish kebab skewer, writhing upright in her garden. "A deterrent," she muttered darkly when I questioned her about this grisly spectacle.

Geese and skunks alone among members of the animal kingdom are said to eat slugs, and some keep them for this purpose. To my thinking, the spectacle is too revolting to endure.

My husband, to prove himself manly, has used the following method: he picks them up with his bare hands (geeklike behavior, in my opinion), and when they roll up in a ball (the burnt sienna-and-orange variety that plague my yard change shape from banana to papaya when attacked), he hurls them out into the street. Then he runs back and forth over them with the car. Charming behavior which I hope was not genetically transmitted to my children.

PS: Geoducks are too disgusting even to comment on. If people get upset about porno in 7-Elevens, why do they ignore the spectacle of geoducks at Safeway? Or even worse, the live ones in Asian grocery stores that squirt at innocent passersby?

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