Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Lobster

The lobster may be the gateway animal for veganhood.

For coastal New Englanders, lobster-eating is a summertime luxury. The bib, the mound of steaming corn-on-the-cob, the watery cracking of the shell, the large silver pot, the thick colored elastics. Native residents and visitors look forward to hot, sandy days on a damp towel overlooking the Atlantic and the subsequent late afternoon feast.

Here's the elephant in the room for my family members, though: I was never keen on the taste of cooked lobster. I remember enjoying it just one time as a kid, though I think that had more to do with the big bowl of butter. But after that day, I found the richness and texture of the delicate, pink clawmeat off-putting. As much as I love the ocean and the mysterious beauty of its plants and animals, the idea of tasting anything from it makes me gag. (Seaweed can occasionally be tolerated under heavily-seasoned conditions.) I even forced myself to retry lobster several times as an adult, thinking my tastes had matured, but no.

In short, not eating lobster was easy.

But as a kid, I watched their dark maroon bodies waving and arching frantically as they were taken from the brown paper bag and lowered into the boiling water before being let go to sink. It seemed horribly wrong. Their claws were even clamped shut, so their last defense for living was taken. The lid was pushed down and the clanking noises from inside the pot made my eyes widen. I knew how much it hurt to have a drop of boiling water hit my skin and how much the mark hurt for the next couple of days. What would it be like to have your whole body lowered into a tank of it?

And what got me was that it never seemed to bother anybody else. Perhaps it did, and nobody else was speaking up, lest it exacerbate my angst. But it was so unimaginably cruel and barbaric to me. I'd run away and cover my ears tightly so I wouldn't have to hear them fight the edges of the pot.

I find it hard to believe that I was the only child or adult bothered by this. We're usually not charged with killing animals ourselves. Instead, most of us pay the service of having others do it for us. Seeing the animal alive immediately before we kill and eat it is a unique experience nowadays. And for me, at least, it made me consider all animals' experience of death for my palate.

The argument has long been that lobsters don't feel pain. It's a rather self-serving argument, when you think about it. We can dump them in scorching water and not feel bad about it. And it's simultaneously fascinating, because most people would acknowledge that cows, pigs, and chickens experience pain, but that doesn't stop us paying others to kill them. We know they are in pain, but we do it anyway. So what makes people so defensive about lobsters' pain? Why go to such lengths to explain it away?

An ABC report from 2005 noted that animals with simple nervous systems, like lobsters, didn't experience pain. 
"I think that individuals, based on their heritage and their genetic makeup, do project their emotions onto animals," said Richard Cawthorn, director of the Lobster Science Center at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, who supports the research finding that lobsters do not feel pain."When people do anthropomorphize animals -- even cartoon animals -- it reflects our needs and our desires," said Stevens. "It's more of a political agenda than any kind of scientific or social discussion of the issue."
Excuse me while I compose myself after reading those snooty remarks. A political agenda? How is it political to protect someone from being hurt? We call that empathy, buddy, not politics. And what's more, he works for the Lobster Science Center, whose website reads  -- get this --  "Our research is based in the areas of lobster and crustacean science, focusing on the health of lobsters, crab and shrimp as they are a significant part of the economy in Eastern Canada." A significant part of the economy? And who has the political agenda here? Methinks someone wants to keep his job and eat lobster. (And don't even get me started on the word anthropomorphize.)

Later studies, though, showed that crustaceans were, in fact, feeling pain. D'uh.

In 2009, NBC reported the work of Robert Elwood, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at The Queen's University in Belfast, and Mirjam Appel, a colleague. 

Elwood and Appel gave small electric shocks to some of the crabs within their shells. When the researchers provided vacant shells, some crabs — but only the ones that had been shocked —left their old shells and entered the new ones, showing stress-related behaviors like grooming of the abdomen or rapping of the abdomen against the empty shell. 
Grooming, as for a person licking a burnt finger, "is a protective motor reaction and viewed as a sign of pain in vertebrates," the researchers wrote.
...If crabs are given medicine -- anesthetics or analgesics -- they appear to feel relieved, showing fewer responses to negative stimuli. And finally, the researchers wrote, crustaceans possess "high cognitive ability and sentience."  

Elwood was also quoted in a 2013 Business Insider article titled "SCIENTIST: Yes, That Lobster You're Boiling Alive is Probably in Real Pain."     

Elwood told AFP [Agence France Presse] it was impossible to prove beyond doubt that the animals feel pain, but the research results were "consistent" with pain and added: "Perhaps we should err on the side of caution." 
Elwood said billions of prawns, crabs and lobster are caught or reared for human consumption every year and treated in "very extreme ways." 
"Crabs have their claws torn off and the live crab is thrown back in the sea. Lobsters and prawns have the front half of the body torn off from the abdomen which is kept for the meat. The nervous system in the head and thorax is still functional an hour later." 
The biologist said many people assumed that because crustaceans do not have a brain resembling that of vertebrate animals, they could not feel pain. 
"Crustaceans are invertebrates and people do not care about invertebrates," he said. 
"More consideration of the treatment of these animals is needed as a potentially very large problem is being ignored."
So yes, Virginia, animals do feel pain. Being thrown in boiling water tends to hurt a lot.

Lobsters provide people with a unique moment of seeing the animal as someone living and fighting to stay alive, not as an inanimate thing. That we argue so strongly against their feeling pain is very telling. We don't want to think of ourselves as someone who would intentionally cause suffering. 

But I wonder if there are other kids and adults out there who are watching how lobsters react to being put in that pot. I can't be alone in this. If I were, people wouldn't be arguing against it so strongly, because who cares what one piddly naysayer thinks. 

Nope. I suspect there are many others whose conscience is nagging them on this issue. And who knows where that might lead?


PS. Since I was small and pushed my nose up against a lobster tank, I've longed to free them. I dream of buying the entire tank of lobsters, renting a boat and taking it far far out on the ocean (away from lobstermen's traps), carefully removing the blasted elastics, gently placing the lobsters back in the icy water, and letting them go. They will float downward to the ocean floor, far from boiling pots, and live out long lives. 

Yes, I realize it doesn't make much sense to pay for them, as it only supports the industry that kills them. But I dream about it anyway. Because if I were born a lobster, I would hope someone would do the same for me.


  1. Excellent post. I had never thought before about the fact that people so vigorously justify boiling and killing lobsters by claiming that they don't feel pain -- yet they don't feel the same compulsion to defend their actions when it comes to other animals that they know feel pain. It's so fascinating how people can compartmentalize.

    1. Thanks, Bobbie! Yes - as much as violence towards anybody tears at me, there is a separate part of me that finds all the justifications we come up with (not just around animal issues) oddly fascinating. We're kind of bizarre creatures, aren't we?