Evolution played a trick on shrimps, crabs, and lobsters, making them taste good when cooked. Lobsters area a gourmet food and favorite regular food in areas where they live. But when a live lobster is plopped into boiling water, does it feel pain? Is it cruel? Should we care?
The annual summer Maine Lobster Festival attracts many visitors who feast on delicious lobster. The Maine Lobster Promotion Council has a lobster quiz claiming that the nervous system of a lobster “is decentralized with no brain.”
However, recent research has confirmed that crustaceans do feel the pain. A paper on experiments on hermit crabs by Bob Elwood and Mirjam Appel (at the School of Biological Sciences in Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland) for the journal Animal Behaviour (2009) indicates that ocean crustaceans -- shrimps, crabs and lobsters -- feel and remember inflicted pain.
It has been uncertain where animals such as insects and crustaceans have consciousness and feelings, or whether they just react with reflexes. Zoologists knew previously that crustaceans can sense harmful stimuli and withdraw from it. The new research is consistent with the premise that these animals have feelings rather than mere reflexes. A hermit crab whose acquired shell is subjected to electric shock is more likely to switch to a new shell when one is offered.
Zoologists knew that lobsters thrash around when boiled, but the reaction could be a reflex rather than felt pain. Feelings imply some degree of consciousness. Crustaceans have a simpler brain and nervous system than mammals, so one cannot just make a conclusion by watching. However, it is also unwarranted to just assume that simpler animals feel no pain.
Pain evolved to help animals survive. They flee from pain and avoid situations in which there has been pain. It is logical to conclude that the animals feel the pain. Moreover, there is much genetic similarity among animals, and there is intelligence in “lower” types such as octopuses.
A previous study, “Nociception or pain in a decapod crustacean?” in Animal Behavior, 2007, examined the responses of prawns to noxious stimuli on its antenna. The prawn responded with grooming and rubbing. After applying an anaesthetic, the reaction stopped. The article concluded that this complex response indicates that the prawns experience pain.
A report by Advocates for Animals, a Scottish organization, presents some evidence that lobsters are capable of experiencing pain. This research shows that lobsters have biological structures for feeling and responding to pain, and that lobsters have mental processes such as learning, memory, association, and generalization.
Human beings tend to be more opposed to cruelty to mammals than to the “lower” types such as fish and crustaceans, especially when commonly used for food. Most people would not want to watch a rabbit being killed just before cooking it, yet they merrily pick out a live lobster. But if cruelty to animals is morally wrong, then it has to apply to all animals, not just those which are more like humans and cute. That implies that when we cook crabs, lobsters, and shrimp, we should handle and kill them in a way to minimize the pain.
Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have campaigned against animal cruelty, but their impact has been blunted by the violence of some animal-rights activists. When somebody bombs an animal research center and threatens the researchers, it contradicts the message of being kind to living beings. Therefore it is unlikely that anti-cruelty legislation will be expanded.
Some products are available that presumably reduce lobster pain. There is a device that kills crustaceans by stunning them unconscious with an electric current. People who consider themselves humane should seek out these devices if they cook lobsters, and ask in restaurants if they stun the lobsters before cooking them. If enough people ask, then the cooks will pay attention.
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.
Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.