Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lobsters, Pain, and the Omnivore's Dilemma

New England has a strong association with lobsters and fresh seafood during the summer months. A hot pot full of boiling, freshly-caught lobsters is a common sight around the area. For those who are unfamiliar with how lobsters are prepared, the whole process can be somewhat shocking. The lobster is first purchased, still alive, from a store or fish market. It is rare to see a pre-killed but uncooked lobster for sale, and in fact it is illegal in some areas, like Massachusetts. Typically then the lobsters are brought home and kept in the fridge until dinner. The most common method for preparing lobster is boiling it, although they can also be grilled or steamed. The shocking part for most people is that the lobster is, in fact, cooked alive. When boiling a lobster, you quickly drop it in the pot and secure the lid, hoping that it does not manage to escape from the pot. This brings about a tricky situation. If the lobster can feel pain, then we are clearly committing a cruel act against these creatures. But if the lobster is incapable of feeling pain, then is this as bad as it would be to treat another animal, like a cow, cruelly?
The question of the lobster's ability to feel pain is one that is still not completely answered. It is clear that the animals react to various stimuli, but it is difficult to tell if these are simply basic muscle contractions or if they are experiencing something closer to what we would think to be pain. I came across an older ABC News article while pondering if the lobsters were suffering when cooked or simply reacting with basic instincts which sheds some light on this fiery debate. It isn't like you can just up and ask the lobster if it is in pain, since they have no way to make any verbalized sound. There are ways, however, to examine the lobsters in order to learn about their pain response.
Lobsters obviously do not have a complicated nervous system. This leads researchers to believe that they are incapable of the emotional processing necessary to feel pain as we do. Instead of the brain vertebrates have, lobsters have chain ganglia which quickly cause muscles to react when stimulated. So research here suggests that their reaction to pain is purely instinctive. If you remove the head of the lobster, the article points out, the rest of the lobster continues to react to pain in an identical way. To the animal rights activists in the article, this is apparently not a good enough reasoning, and it seems that they do not feel the scientific evidence presented thus far in the debate is sufficient. It would seem, however, that while lobsters can react to stimuli in the most basic of ways, they do not feel "pain" as more developed animals do. There is another factor in this debate, which the Guardian article brings up. Prawns, a relative of lobster, appear to respond to a noxious substance placed on their antennae by grooming and rubbing, but will cease the activity when an analgesic is placed on the affected area, suggesting nerve endings capable of pain. Still yet another study, mentioned in Science Daily, suggests that hermit crabs are capable of "remembering" pain previously suffered. Those that experienced a large amount of painful electrical shocks while in one shell were quicker to move to another shell. It seems, then, that more research is necessary to really understand the nature of the pain felt by crustaceans.
The other factor to the lobster pain problem, as the article points out, is the tendency for humans to anthropomorphize animals. We see the lobster in pain and reacting and attribute to it characteristics that we would attribute to other humans, even if this isn't applicable. The way the lobster suffers bothers us because of how we would imagine other humans suffering.
In light of this, I feel that the points made in the Omnivore's Dilemma are important here, as well. It is important to have respect for our food and understand how it came to us. The lobster is one of the few animals that we personally still kill ourselves prior to eating it. Perhaps by treating the animal with greater respect and ending its life in a more humane way, we can have a better connection to what we are eating, rather than a somewhat traumatic one. If not for the sake of the potentially suffering lobster, then we should find more humane ways at least for the sake of our own psychological security.


1 comment:

  1. The ethical issues surrounding the topic of inhumane slaughter of animals, is in fact quite a touchy subject. While reading the section on animal suffering in Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was particularly taken back by his comments on the topic of castration with regards to male mammals. Although science has shown that the modern process is “painless” it still seems a little drastic to me. I firmly believe in the ethical treatment of animals, but I am also very entrusting in modern day science and technology.
    On the topic of animal ability to synthesize pain, my interpretation is as follows. Pain is an emotion induced by a cognitive thought process taking place in the brain. In order to feel pain the brain must associate a particular event with an inevitable outcome, thus making an emotional connection between action and reaction. Thus it is impossible for any human to try and comprehend what is going on emotionally in an animal as we do not process stimuli exactly the same way as any other species.
    As far as I know the human brain functions very differently than that of a sea dwelling crustacean. The article that is mentioned above, about the study concerning prawns and hermit crabs is very interesting. Although the hermit crab seems to recognize pain, it is common practice in nature to adapt to your surroundings, hence why birds will eat some berries, but know not to eat others; as they would make them sick. The animal was never told what to do; rather evolution has helped it to desire a state of homeostasis. The will to survive is ingrained in every species DNA; if life didn’t want to live, life wouldn’t exist. Crustaceans react to certain stimuli because evolution has told them that some things are detrimental to life and certain aren’t, not because they are capable of producing complex emotions.

    “It is important to have respect for our food and understand how it came to us. The lobster is one of the few animals that we personally still kill ourselves prior to eating it. Perhaps by treating the animal with greater respect and ending its life in a more humane way, we can have a better connection to what we are eating, rather than a somewhat traumatic one.”
    I particularly enjoyed this as I just did a post on how far removed people are from their food on the commodity chain. I too believe that the first step to appreciating your food is the knowledge of where it came from, how it was treated and how it is prepared. As B.R. Myers states in the article Hard to Swallow,” “reducing man’s moral nature to an extension of our instincts” makes it much easier to tolerate killing an animal. If people were more involved with their food and educated on the processes it takes to produce, we would likely see the food industry shift to a far more sustainable and ethical system.