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Crabs Can Feel Pain, Science Says

Crabs Can Feel Pain, Science Says

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'Consider the Lobster' gets real

Well, we might just have to rethink every crab leg feast ever (as delicious as they are). A new study from Queen's University Belfast found that crabs actually might feel pain, and that could apply to all crustaceans.

Researchers at the Queen's School of Biological Sciences tested 90 crabs, offering them two dark caves in a bright tank. "Crabs value dark hideaways beneath rocks where they can shelter from predators," Professor Bob Elwood says. "Exploiting this preference, our study tested whether the crabs experienced pain by seeing if they could learn to give up a valued dark hiding place in order to avoid a mild electric shock."

One of the caves would shock a crab upon entering, while the other wouldn't. Researchers found that after two rounds of shocks, crabs learned to avoid that specific shelter. In fact, sometimes they were willing to leave their cave if it shocked them in order to search out the other cave.

The level of pain which the crabs might feel is still unknown; "On a philosophical point it is impossible to demonstrate absolutely that an animal experiences pain," Elwood says. The study, however, has data that is consistent with "the idea of pain," and the results show that there is a strong probability of pain.

This revelation is particularly nervewracking, as a common way to cook crab and lobster is to stick them in a pot of boiling water while still alive. Others argue that the most humane way to cook crustaceans is to take a knife down the back of the head, killing them immediately. It's not for the faint of heart, and the ethical dilemma remains. (But it's delicious! But they feel pain! It can go on forever).

Do locusts feel pain? This is what science has to say: SCIENCE: Tech Times

Can lobsters feel pain in the same way as humans and other animals? Scientists have tried to answer this question for quite some time, but have reached different conclusions. This is what they have to say about it.
( Mogens Petersen | Pixabay )

Switzerland is the last country to ban the cooking of live lobsters for cooking. As a result, chefs and chefs in the country are now forced to stun the animal before placing them in boiling water.

Now the question that most people are probably asking is whether lobsters may or may not feel pain in the same way that humans and other animals do. This is what the scientists have to say about it.

Switzerland bans Boiling Lobsters Alive

Switzerland has joined the New Zealand company and Reggio Emilia, a small town in northern Italy, where the boiling of live lobsters was also banned. it is considered an inhumane act.

Since March 1, chefs and restaurateurs in Switzerland are required by law to render locusts unconscious, either by electric shock or "mechanical destruction" of the brain, before they can be placed in boiling water.

The recent ban came amid growing scientific evidence pointing to the fact that invertebrates such as lobsters, crabs and crabs are capable of experiencing pain.

Do locusts feel pain?

The question of whether locusts can feel pain is a matter of scientific debate. Many researchers and scientists in the past agree that lobsters can not experience pain.

In 2013, however, a study published in the journal of Experimental Biology had attempted to challenge this conventional idea. This study found that shore crabs, such as a crustacean such as lobster, have a certain level of ability to experience pain due to the "shock evasion" response they exhibit.

The experience of pain

To determine whether a Being or not feel pain, there are two questions that must be answered, according to scientists.

The first question is whether that being responds to pain by moving its entire body or the affected part of its body away from the damage. stimulus. The second is whether the same being feels pain or not, which is also known as suffering.


The first question is related to the idea of ​​"nociception", which is a reflex action and the response of the sensory nervous system to certain painful or potentially painful stimuli.

An example of the idea of ​​nociception is seen in humans when they quickly remove their hands when they touch something hot. The act of withdrawing hands from something that is hot happens before the pain sensation is really felt.

In the 2013 study, researchers managed to observe this type of response from shore crabs. When the crabs were exposed to electric shocks, they responded to the harmful stimulus by moving away from it.

On the other hand, if the crabs experienced any pain, it was too difficult to determine for the researchers. This is due to the fact that each being manifests his experiences or feelings in different ways.

Finally, scientists who believe that locusts can not feel pain argue that the primitive nervous system of the animal is very similar to that of an insect the grbadhopper.

They say that lobsters are able to respond or react to a sudden stimulus, but they do not have complex brains that allow them to process pain like humans and other animals. In other words, they do not have a cerebral cortex, which is the area in the human brain that is responsible for the pain experience.

© 2018 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Fish Feel Pain

Fish don’t audibly scream when they’re impaled on hooks or grimace when the hooks are ripped from their mouths, but their behavior offers evidence of their suffering—if we’re willing to look. For example, when Braithwaite and her colleagues exposed fish to irritating chemicals, the animals behaved as any of us might: They lost their appetite, their gills beat faster, and they rubbed the affected areas against the side of the tank.

Neurobiologists have long recognized that fish have nervous systems that comprehend and respond to pain. Fish, like “higher vertebrates,” have neurotransmitters such as endorphins that relieve suffering—the only reason for their nervous systems to produce these painkillers is to alleviate pain. Researchers have created a detailed map of more than 20 pain receptors, or “nociceptors,” in fish’s mouths and heads—including those very areas where an angler’s barbed hook would penetrate a fish’s flesh. As Dr. Stephanie Yue wrote in her position paper on fish and pain, “Pain is an evolutionary adaptation that helps individuals survive . . . . [A] trait like pain perception is not likely to suddenly disappear for one particular taxonomic class.”

Even though fish don’t have the same brain structures that humans do—fish do not have a neocortex, for example—Dr. Ian Duncan reminds us that we “have to look at behaviour and physiology,” not just anatomy. “It’s possible for a brain to evolve in different ways,” he says. “That’s what is happening in the fish line. It’s evolved in some other ways in other parts of the brain to receive pain.”

Numerous studies in recent years have demonstrated that fish feel and react to pain. For example, when rainbow trout had painful acetic acid or bee venom injected into their sensitive lips, they stopped eating, rocked back and forth on the tank floor, and rubbed their lips against the tank walls. Fish who were injected with a harmless saline solution didn’t display this abnormal behavior.

Trout are “neophobic,” meaning that they actively avoid new objects. But those who were injected with acetic acid showed little response to a brightly colored Lego tower that was placed in their tank, suggesting that their attention was focused instead on the pain that they were experiencing. In contrast, trout injected with saline—as well as those who were given painkillers following the painful acid injection—displayed the usual degree of caution regarding the new object. Similar results have been demonstrated in human patients suffering from painful medical conditions: Medical professionals have long known that pain interferes with patients’ normal cognitive abilities.

A study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science found that fish who are exposed to painful heat later show signs of fear and wariness—illustrating that fish both experience pain and can remember it.

A study by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast proved that fish learn to avoid pain, just like other animals. Rebecca Dunlop, one of the researchers, said, “This paper shows that pain avoidance in fish doesn’t seem to be a reflex response, rather one that is learned, remembered and is changed according to different circumstances. Therefore, if fish can perceive pain, then angling cannot continue to be considered a non-cruel sport.”

Similarly, researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada concluded that fish feel fear when they’re chased and that their behavior is more than simply a reflex. The “fish are frightened and … they prefer not being frightened,” said Dr. Duncan, who headed the study.

In a 2014 report, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC), an advisory body to the British government, stated, “Fish are able to detect and respond to noxious stimuli, and FAWC supports the increasing scientific consensus that they experience pain.”

Dr. Culum Brown of Macquarie University, who reviewed nearly 200 research papers on fish’s cognitive abilities and sensory perceptions, believes that the stress that fish experience when they’re pulled from the water into an environment in which they cannot breathe may even exceed that of a human drowning. “[U]nlike drowning in humans, where we die in about 4–5 minutes because we can’t extract any oxygen from water, fish can go on for much longer. It’s a prolonged slow death most of the time,” he says.

Anglers may not want to think about it, but fishing is nothing more than a cruel blood sport. When fish are impaled on an angler’s hook and yanked out of the water, it’s not a game to them. They are scared, in pain, and fighting for their lives. Michael Stoskopf, professor of aquatics, wildlife, and zoologic medicine and of molecular and environmental toxicology at North Carolina University, said, “It would be an unjustified error to assume that fish do not perceive pain in these situations merely because their responses do not match those traditionally seen in mammals subjected to chronic pain.”

As a result of his research, Dr. Culum Brown concludes that “it would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviorally complex animals they are without a capacity to feel pain” and “the potential amount of cruelty” that we humans inflict on fish “is mind-boggling.”

Please leave fish off your forks. Click here to learn how to go vegan, or order PETA’s free vegan starter kit for great tips and recipes to help you make the transition to fish-free, vegan eating.

References & Further Reading

Casares, F., McElroy, A., Mantione, K., Baggermann, G., Zhu, W., Stefano, G. "The American lobster, Homarus americanus, contains morphine that is coupled to nitric oxide release in its nervous and immune tissues: Evidence for neurotransmitter and hormonal signaling." Neuroendocrinology Letters. 1 Jan. 2005, Volume 26, Number 2: 89-97.

Chang, E. "Stressed-out lobsters: crustacean hyperglycemic hormone and stress proteins." Integrative and Comparative Biology. 1 Jan. 2005, Volume 45, Number 1: 43-50.

Elwood, R., Adams, L. "Electric shock causes physiological stress responses in shore crabs, consistent with prediction of pain." Biology Letters. 1 Nov. 2015, Volume 11, Number 11.

RSPCA. "What is the most humane way to kill crustaceans for human consumption?" RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase. Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2018. <>

Stevens, E., Arlinghaus, R., Browman, H., Cooke, S., Cowx, I., Diggles, B., Key, B., Rose, J., Sawynok, W., Schwab, A., Skiftesvik, A., Watson, C., Wynne, C. "Stress is not pain. Comment on Elwood and Adams (2015)." Biology Letters. 1 Apr. 2016, Volume 12, Number 4.

Wallace, D. Consider the Lobster. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2005.

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Experiments reveal that crabs and lobsters feel pain

I can't handle these comments. Let's clear the air on this with some light reading from the actual study.

In conclusion, the data from this and other studies (e.g. Elwood, 2012) go beyond the idea of crustaceans responding to noxious stimuli simply by nociceptive reflex. Instead, long-term motivational change that enables discrimination learning has been demonstrated.

This is important because:

If indicators of strong long-term motivational change after noxious stimulation are observed, then it may be assumed that they are mediated by an aversive experience or ‘feeling’ rather than just nociception (Braithwaite, 2010 Gentle, 2011 Sherwin, 2001).

Nociception is just a reflex to avoid noxious stimuli, pain is the actual 𧿮ling' which we presumably don't want to inflict on other living things if we can avoid it. Magee and Elwood have shown that lobsters and crabs experience pain insofar as we currently define it for animals.

This isn't a "No shit." type of finding because it shows that lobsters and crabs not only avoid noxious stimuli at the moment they are being hurt but that they also remember where that stimulus came from and possibly what it felt like, which is enough to qualify them as experiencing pain as we currently define it for animals.

That last bit is extremely important. If lobsters and crabs experience pain by the same definition that dogs and cats do, then either our definition of animal pain needs refining, people shouldn't have any qualms about boiling their cats alive, or, more rationally I think, lobsters shouldn't be treated any worse than cows are.

Link to the actual article here.

EDIT: Thanks for the gold!
EDIT2: I've been getting a lot of the same type of reply:

if an animal feels pain, it will "adapt" or learn to avoid it. that doesn't imply pain at all IMO.

You could easily program a robot to respond to negative stimuli and take action to avoid it in future. Doesn't mean it feels pain in the same way as a human or a cat or dog.

I think I understand what all of these replies are getting at. It seems counterintuitive that 'pain', which to humans is extremely emotional, could be defined by such simple behaviors as nociception and behavioral modification. Indeed, you could easily program a computer to demonstrate both nociception and behavioral modification. This makes it seem like a bad definition. However, until animals learn to speak, this is the best scientific definition of pain in animals that we have, and lobsters and crabs fit it. We can't (to my limited knowledge) scientifically distinguish between a biological computer designed to mimic pain and an animal that is apparently experiencing it.

Sounds like you have actual training in physiology gasp.

But does learning imply feeling? I may be anthropomorphizing but, to my knowledge, dogs, cats and livestock show signs of continued behavioural change (depression/shyness/loss of appetite/etc) due to pain/abuse even when the causing factor is no longer present. These crabs show a learned reaction to a single situation, but outside that scenario they haven't been shown to be affected by the noxious stimulation. I suppose anguish or suffering may be better descriptors of what I'm getting at. I think that's why most people are OK with treating farm mammals and crustaceans differently.

Cows suffer terribly, but your analysis is spot on. Thanks!

I would be surprised if they didn't. Pain is just your body telling you that you damaged it. It seems to me that it would be a large evolutionary advantage to know when you've damaged yourself.

Seriously. I read something about a human with no pain and he died from self inflicted wounds, because, obviously, he didn't know he hurt himself.

If you read the article in full you would notice that they do differentiate between nociception (recognizing harmful stimuli and initiating movements or behaviors to avoid the stimuli) and pain. Lobsters and crabs do have nociception like the vast majority of animals do on this planet. Pain is a little more complicated. Elwood's experiments seem to indicate that his definition of pain involved a memory and learning component. Though the difference between pain and noxious stimuli detection does seem a little trivial.

I don't think the question is do they feel pain. The question is do they experience pain the way we do.

Example: If I were to design an android, if it was damaged I would send its "brain" a notification saying Damage incurred, avoid this stimulus or else permanent damage or death may result.

I wouldn't program it to respond to damage by putting it in crippling agony. Pain wouldn't be "unpleasant," just a "notification."

So the question is, do lobsters and crabs feel pain as unpleasant, or just a "notification" to move away from the stimulus -- i.e. a reflex?

That is incredibly difficult to qualify, because we have absolutely no way with current technology to know how the lobster feels when its leg is torn off. Does it hurt like we do, or does its brain just reflexively try to get away?

This experiment proves that either.

Pain is unpleasant for crustaceans

Crustaceans are smarter than we think, and they know well enough that the pain reflex is detrimental to their health, because they will actively try to avoid it.

Depends on what you're referring to when you say "pain". While Iɽ argue every living thing needs some way of "knowing" if they have been injured so as to react accordingly (pressure and/or heat receptors or whatever) in order to survive as a species, it's more difficult to argue that every living thing experiences this pain as suffering. Pain itself as a stimulus and the experience of pain are two different things.

In my mind, it's similar to being very, very drunk or blackout drunk. Even in your own experience, I'm assuming, you can recall vaguely being so drunk that all you can do is live within the next few seconds on a very basic level. I like to think this is how animals, like lobsters and crabs, live. People seem to forget animals don't experience the world the same as we do with all our senses working together. Even being sober the next day, it's difficult to recall details of what happened the night before. You remember that you fell down the stairs but you don't really recall the experience of the pain. Yet, when you fell down those stairs, you pretty quickly moved away from them.. or the campfire you fell into.. or the belt you just stepped on with bare feet..

When you touch a hot stove, your body as already taken the steps to move you away from the stimulus long before, relatively of course, you have received and processed the signal in your brain that you've been injured. Iɽ like to see if perhaps these animals have evolved more complex receptors/processing in their limbs which give the illusion that they're consciously reacting to the stimulus.

I don't know, fun to think about. And now I have an excuse to get drunk.. it's for science.

Another country has banned boiling live lobsters. Some scientists wonder why.

Lobsters may be one of the most popular crustaceans in the culinary arts. But when it comes to killing them, there’s a long and unresolved debate about how to do it humanely, and whether that extra consideration is even necessary.

The Swiss Federal Council issued an order this week banning cooks in Switzerland from placing live lobsters into pots of boiling water — joining a few other jurisdictions that have protections for the decapod crustaceans. Switzerland’s new measure stipulates that beginning March 1, lobsters must be knocked out — either by electric shock or “mechanical destruction” of the brain — before boiling them, according to Swiss public broadcaster RTS.

The announcement reignited a long-running debate: Can lobsters even feel pain?

“They can sense their environment,” said Bob Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, “but they probably don’t have the ability to process pain.”

Boiling lobsters alive is already illegal in some places, including New Zealand and Reggio Emilia, a city in northern Italy, according to the animal rights group Viva.

A Swiss government spokeswoman said the law there was driven by the animal rights argument.

“There are more animal friendly methods than boiling alive, that can be applied when killing a lobster,” Eva van Beek of the Federal Office of Food Safety and Veterinary Affairs said in an email.

Van Beek told The Washington Post that there had been a motion to ban all lobster imports to the country, but the federal government “thought this measure was not applicable due to international trading laws.” Officials, she said, “also thought we could improve the animal protection aspect.”

So the legislation was amended.

And anyway, van Beek added: “Switzerland’s consumption of lobster [is] negligible. We are a landlocked country, lobster is thus regarded as a rather exotic delicacy, which is served only in special restaurants.”

Jeff Bennett of the Maine International Trade Center said the United States’ live lobster exports to the European Union in 2016 totaled $147 million. But the United States exported only $368,000 worth of live lobsters to Switzerland that year, he said.

Switzerland’s new order also states that lobsters, and other decapod crustaceans, can no longer be transported on ice or in ice water, but must be kept in the habitat they’re used to — saltwater, according to RTS.

Sake steamed lobster and uni cake with turnip puree at Nasime in Alexandria, Va. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

The issue of lobsters in kitchens is controversial.

Do live lobsters really scream when they’re plopped into boiling water, or is that merely the sound of air escaping from their bodies?

Do they squirm because they’re in pain, or simply because they can sense heat?

Bayer, a scientist at the Lobster Institute, said these questions have been debated for decades — and the answers lie somewhere in science.

Although the most common opinion held by researchers is that lobsters (and their hard-shell relatives) cannot process pain, there is in fact a subgroup of scientists who vehemently disagree.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that crabs avoided electric shocks, suggesting they can, in fact, feel pain. Bob Elwood, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, told BBC News at the time: “I don’t know what goes on in a crab’s mind. . . . But what I can say is the whole behavior goes beyond a straightforward reflex response and it fits all the criteria of pain.”

However, marine biologist Jeff Shields, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said it’s unclear whether the reaction to negative stimuli is a pain response or simply an avoidance response. “That’s the problem,” he said, “there’s no way to tell.”

But because lobsters do not have the neural pathways that mammals have and use in pain response, Shields said he does not believe lobsters feel pain.

According to an explainer from the Lobster Institute, a research and educational organization , lobsters have a primitive nervous system, akin to an insect, such as a grasshopper. “Neither insects nor lobsters have brains,” according to the institute. “For an organism to perceive pain it must have a complex nervous system. Neurophysiologists tell us that lobsters, like insects, do not process pain.”

Bayer, the institute’s director, said boiling them is likely to be more traumatic for the cook than the crustacean for the squeamish, he recommends simply placing lobsters in the freezer first to numb them, or putting them in a sink filled with tap water, which also kills them.

But biological anthropologist Barbara King, a retired professor at the College of William & Mary, said there is a long history of underestimating animal pain.

“I’m not a biologist, but I think the preponderance of evidence suggests they can feel pain I am convinced they can feel pain,” said King, author of “Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat.”

She added: “Whether we know or don’t know, it’s our ethical responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt and not put them into boiling water.”

King said there are debates about whether people should eat lobsters at all, “so in my view, it’s a pretty low bar to make sure that if we do eat them, we don’t torture them first.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has done exposés on how crabs and lobsters are killed, applauded Switzerland’s new ban on boiling live lobsters, noting in a statement that “when plunged into scalding-hot water, [crustaceans] writhed wildly and scraped at the sides of the pot in a desperate attempt to escape. So to anyone in a civilized society who isn’t Bear Grylls, this legislation makes sense.”

But, the animal rights organization added, while “this law may put an end to one of the cruellest ways of killing these fascinating beings, the best way to help them is simply to leave them off our plates by choosing instead from the multitude of delicious vegan foods readily available to us all.”

Tanja Florenthal, academic director of the prestigious César Ritz Colleges, which has campuses across Switzerland, said she is pleased about the new Swiss ban. Instructors at the Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland have already implemented the changes in their lessons, she said.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been teaching them to do it with boiling water but that’s changing now,” she told The Washington Post this week. “We are going to take this opportunity to have a discussion with the students to see if there are other ways to do the killings in a more ethical and respectful manner, not only for lobsters.”

She added: “I think we have a responsibility to make sure our animals are treated right.”

No one knows if lobsters feel pain, which makes boiling them alive rather complicated

Switzerland's new laws ask you to consider the lobster.

A statue commemorating the glorious lobster Pixabay

If you like eating lobster but have never cooked one yourself, here’s a brief word of advice: don’t.

Before you’ve plunged one into boiling water with your own two hands, it’s easy to imagine lobsters as big-clawed bugs who feel nothing as they’re cooked alive. And listen—it’s possible that’s true. Science hasn’t come down definitively on one side or the other. But once you’ve heard them banging on the inside of the pot trying to claw their way out, you won’t ever be able to not hear it as you eat a lobster.

Which is, oddly, not to say you shouldn’t eat them. This is not a campaign against the consumption of delicious, delicate crustacean meat. But since Switzerland recently abandoned their historic neutralism to take a stance on lobster morality, we figured we should take a look at just what the evidence says on whether our crustacean buds can feel pain or not.

Starting in March 2018, it will be considered an act of animal cruelty to boil a lobster alive in Switzerland. The Swiss will need to stun or kill animals before boiling them, and lobsters can’t be kept alive on ice. It’s actually not clear how the Swiss government thinks a lobster should be killed, but they’ve decided that enough research suggests they experience pain that we cannot boil them alive in good conscience.

The problem with pain is that it’s phenomenological, which is a fancy philosophical term for something made real just by the fact that someone experiences it. If you think that you’re in pain, then you are. No one else gets to tell you that you aren’t in pain, because they cannot possibly know whether you are or aren’t. If you feel it, you’re in it. Pain is not more or less real because other people or organisms might not feel pain in the same circumstances and can’t experience your pain for themselves.

This poses something of a quandary for scientists. They’re never going to be able to prove that lobsters feel pain because we can’t know what it’s like to be a lobster. Plenty of mammals and other vertebrates exhibit behavior similar enough to ours, and have nervous systems close enough to our own, that we can say pretty definitively that they feel pain. An injured dog whimpers, licks its wounds, and avoids the source of its injury. A fruit fly doesn’t do any of those things. It will try to avoid certain stimuli, like a sharp needle or intense heat, but it doesn’t tend to its wounds. It doesn’t give any sign—that we can recognize—that it’s suffering.

Unfortunately for lobster-lovers, crustaceans do exhibit some of those signs of feeling. Crabs that have their claws removed seem to nurse the amputated stump and get stressed when they have electrical shocks applied to them, and lobsters who get a mild acid (think lemon juice) painted onto their antennas will stroke them afterwards, as if soothing the injury. And we know that both will avoid hot water.

A trap for catching crabs and lobsters. Pixabay

But we can’t go on behavioral evidence alone. Humans are wont to project their own emotions onto animals, especially if we feel bad for something we’ve done to them. Famously, one experiment on dogs found that the expression they made when they’ve done something wrong only seems like guilt because dog owners project how they’d feel in the same scenario. Dogs will make that face—even if they’ve done nothing wrong—to show subservience to their owner, who seems upset with them. What if we’re doing the same to lobsters?

After all, their brains aren’t much more complex than an insect’s. They only have a hundred thousand neurons, and no true centralized brain. They’ve got a set of ganglia (which is like a smaller, less organized brain made up of far fewer neurons) spread throughout their body. In terms of mental capacity, there’s a decent argument to be made that lobsters and crabs are just big bugs.

Flies, like crustaceans, will avoid unpleasant stimuli, but only because it’s an instinct for them. They move away from sharp objects the same way a caterpillar builds its chrysalis—even complex behaviors can have zero underlying thought.

Except, well, insects are clearly only avoiding things out of instinct. As one wasp expert told the Washington Post, a locust has plenty of survival reflexes, but even as a praying mantis is chowing down on its abdomen, a locust will eat if you feed it. It’s hard to fathom an animal that feels pain as we know it taking a dinner break in the middle of being eviscerated.

Some of a lobster’s reactions to hot water are similar reflexes. The tail flick, for example, is a reaction to any sudden stimulus, even though it seems like an attempt to escape. And some researchers think it’s possible that their desire to avoid high temperatures could just be a survival mechanism to make sure they’re living in cold enough water to thrive. But we also know that crustaceans are more complicated than locusts. They appear to tend their wounds, for one thing, and their lack of a centralized brain doesn’t preclude feeling pain. Octopuses (yes, that is the correct plural) have multiple small brains in their arms, but researchers now realize that they are quite intelligent, and can certainly feel pain and suffering.

In other words, it’s complicated. Sure, we can say that a lobster has neurons that can sense something hot or sharp, but that doesn’t mean it actually feels these stimuli. And similarly, we can’t say that just because it has a decentralized brain that it doesn’t have the capacity for pain. Unfortunately, we can’t very well ask a lobster how it’s feeling.

A crustacean’s lack of centralized brain may not keep it from feeling pain, but it does make it pretty much impossible to be sure you’re killing the animals painlessly. In more complicated creatures, like vertebrates, the most humane way to kill is to sever the spinal cord. It’s basically instant death. Sometimes people looking to ethically end an animal in a lab, like a rat or frog, will use pithing—brain matter itself has no pain receptors, so going straight for the brainstem with a sharp implement is (relatively) humane. But since lobsters have ganglia instead of a single brain, there’s no one spot you can target to sever their sense of feeling. Bashing them against a rock might provide an instantaneous death, but you’re bound to waste a lot of meat (which is just plain rude, and defeats the purpose of killing the crustacean in the first place).

So what’s an ethically-minded lobster-lover to do?

The answer seems to be: to chill. Not you—the lobster you’re hoping to eat. Putting cold-blooded animals like crustaceans (or insects) into a freezer or in icy water numbs them, and they don’t seem to have pain receptors that react to cold (they do live at the bottom of the ocean, after all). Of course, they’ll heat up as you put them in boiling water, but the transition seems to be fast enough that it shortens the time they flail about. Whether it actually changes what they feel is still uncertain, given how little we know about lobster pain in the first place. It may just help you feel better about it. But at least you’re giving your dinner a better chance at a gentle demise.

Of course, even if we knew for certain that lobsters felt pain, it’s not clear that we’d ban their consumption. We know that cows experience distress when we kill them—we even know they feel complex enough emotions to have bovine friends—but most Americans still eat beef. It’s possible that we’d all try to ignore their pain to save our own sensibilities. But given that most folks are much more likely to kill a lobster in their own kitchen than they are, say, a chicken, it’s an ethical question that may hit uncomfortably close to home.

Sara Chodoshis an associate editor at PopSci where she writes about everything from vaccine hesitancy to extreme animal sex. She got her master's degree in science journalism at NYU's Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program, and is getting a second master's in data visualization from the University of Girona. Contact the author here.

What is the most humane way to cook lobsters—boiling them or steaming them in the microwave?

Contrary to claims made by seafood sellers, lobsters do feel pain, and they suffer immensely when they are cut, broiled, or boiled alive.

Most scientists agree that a lobster&rsquos nervous system is quite sophisticated. For example, neurobiologist Tom Abrams says lobsters have “a full array of senses.” Jelle Atema, a marine biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and one of the country&rsquos leading experts on lobsters, says, “I personally believe they do feel pain.”

Lobsters may even feel more pain than we would in similar situations. One popular food magazine recently suggested cutting live lobsters in half before tossing them on the grill (a recipe that&rsquos “not for the squeamish,” the magazine warned), and more than one chef has been known to slice and dice lobsters before cooking them. But, says invertebrate zoologist Jaren G. Horsley, “The lobster does not have an autonomic nervous system that puts it into a state of shock when it is harmed. It probably feels itself being cut. … I think the lobster is in a great deal of pain from being cut open … [and] feels all the pain until its nervous system is destroyed” during cooking.

Don&rsquot heat up the water just yet, though. Anyone who has ever boiled a lobster alive can attest that, when dropped into scalding water, lobsters whip their bodies wildly and scrape the sides of the pot in a desperate attempt to escape. In the journal Science, researcher Gordon Gunter described this method of killing lobsters as “unnecessary torture.”

In fact, after looking at a dozen methods commonly used to kill and cook lobsters, Massachusetts&rsquo Coalition to End Animal Suffering and Exploitation concluded that none “provides a reliably quick or painless death” or can be “considered humane or even relatively humane.”

We would never subject dogs or cats to such cruel treatment&mdashwhy should it be any different for lobsters? If you&rsquore ready to liberate lobsters&mdashand other animals&mdashfrom your plate, request a free copy of PETA’s vegetarian starter kit.

Can lobsters feel pain?

Animal welfare scientists define pain as "an aversive sensation and feeling associated with actual or potential tissue damage", explains Jonathan Birch, assistant professor in philosophy at the London School of Economics.

Defined like this, experiments suggest crustaceans do feel pain, Dr Birch explains in his article "Crabs and lobsters deserve protection from being cooked alive".

In a series of experiments at Queen's University in Belfast, crabs gave up a valuable dark hiding place after repeatedly receiving an electric shock there.

"They were willing to give up their hideaway in order to avoid the source of their probable pain," said Prof Robert Elwood, who led the team carrying out the experiments. He told the BBC that numerous experiments showed "rapid avoidance learning, and [crustaceans] giving up highly valuable resources to avoid certain noxious stimuli" - consistent with the idea of pain.

Crustaceans don't necessarily exhibit signs of pain that are easily recognisable to humans, say welfare activists. Stress-induced behaviours include thrashing, trying to escape and autotomy - where body parts are shed by the animal in response to damage or capture.

This might explain why they are excluded from many countries' legislation on animal welfare - though decapod crustaceans are protected in countries like Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland, and there are campaigns for change elsewhere.

It’s Official: Fish Feel Pain

When Culum Brown was a young boy, he and his grandmother frequented a park near her home in Melbourne, Australia. He was fascinated by the park’s large ornamental pond wriggling with goldfish, mosquitofish, and loaches. Brown would walk the perimeter of the pond, peering into the translucent shallows to gaze at the fish. One day, he and his grandmother arrived at the park and discovered that the pond had been drained—something the parks department apparently did every few years. Heaps of fish flapped upon the exposed bed, suffocating in the sun.

Brown raced from one trash can to another, searching through them and collecting whatever discarded containers he could find—mostly plastic soda bottles. He filled the bottles at drinking fountains and corralled several fish into each one. He pushed other stranded fish toward regions of the pond where some water remained. “I was frantic, running around like a lunatic, trying to save these animals,” recalls Brown, who is now a marine biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney. Ultimately, he managed to rescue hundreds of fish, about 60 of which he adopted. Some of them lived in his home aquariums for more than 10 years.

As a child, I too kept fish. My very first pets were two goldfish, bright as newly minted pennies, in an unornamented glass bowl the size of a cantaloupe. They died within a few weeks. I later upgraded to a 40-liter tank lined with rainbow gravel and a few plastic plants. Inside I kept various small fish: neon tetras with bands of fluorescent blue and red, guppies with bold billowing tails like solar flares, and glass catfish so diaphanous they seemed nothing more than silver-crowned spinal columns darting through the water. Most of these fish lived much longer than the goldfish, but some of them had a habit of leaping in ecstatic arcs straight through the gaps in the tank’s cover and onto the living room floor. My family and I would find them flopping behind the TV, cocooned in dust and lint.

Should we care how fish feel? In his 1789 treatise An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham—who developed the theory of utilitarianism (essentially, the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals)—articulated an idea that has been central to debates about animal welfare ever since. When considering our ethical obligations to other animals, Bentham wrote, the most important question is not, “Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Conventional wisdom has long held that fish cannot—that they do not feel pain. An exchange in a 1977 issue of Field & Stream exemplifies the typical argument. In response to a 13-year-old girl’s letter about whether fish suffer when caught, the writer and fisherman Ed Zern first accuses her of having a parent or teacher write the letter because it is so well composed. He then explains that “fish don’t feel pain the way you do when you skin your knee or stub your toe or have a toothache, because their nervous systems are much simpler. I’m not really sure they feel anypain, as we feel pain, but probably they feel a kind of ‘fish pain.’” Ultimately, whatever primitive suffering they endure is irrelevant, he continues, because it’s all part of the great food chain and, besides, “if something or somebody ever stops us from fishing, we’ll suffer terribly.”

Such logic is still prevalent today. In 2014, BBC Newsnight invited Penn State University biologist Victoria Braithwaite to discuss fish pain and welfare with Bertie Armstrong, head of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. Armstrong dismissed the notion that fish deserve welfare laws as “cranky” and insisted that “the balance of scientific evidence is that fish do not feel pain as we do.”

Despite the evidence that fish can suffer, animal welfare legislations and other legal protections often exclude them. (wonderlandstock / Alamy)

That’s not quite true, Braithwaite says. It is impossible to definitively know whether another creature’s subjective experience is like our own. But that is beside the point. We do not know whether cats, dogs, lab animals, chickens, and cattle feel pain the way we do, yet we still afford them increasingly humane treatment and legal protections because they have demonstrated an ability to suffer. In the past 15 years, Braithwaite and other fish biologists around the world have produced substantial evidence that, just like mammals and birds, fish also experience conscious pain. “More and more people are willing to accept the facts,” Braithwaite says. “Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.”

At the anatomical level, fish have neurons known as nociceptors, which detect potential harm, such as high temperatures, intense pressure, and caustic chemicals. Fish produce the same opioids—the body’s innate painkillers—that mammals do. And their brain activity during injury is analogous to that in terrestrial vertebrates: sticking a pin into goldfish or rainbow trout, just behind their gills, stimulates nociceptors and a cascade of electrical activity that surges toward brain regions essential for conscious sensory perceptions (such as the cerebellum, tectum, and telencephalon), not just the hindbrain and brainstem, which are responsible for reflexes and impulses.

Fish also behave in ways that indicate they consciously experience pain. In one study, researchers dropped clusters of brightly colored Lego blocks into tanks containing rainbow trout. Trout typically avoid an unfamiliar object suddenly introduced to their environment in case it’s dangerous. But when scientists gave the rainbow trout a painful injection of acetic acid, they were much less likely to exhibit these defensive behaviors, presumably because they were distracted by their own suffering. In contrast, fish injected with both acid and morphine maintained their usual caution. Like all analgesics, morphine dulls the experience of pain, but does nothing to remove the source of pain itself, suggesting that the fish’s behavior reflected their mental state, not mere physiology. If the fish were reflexively responding to the presence of caustic acid, as opposed to consciously experiencing pain, then the morphine should not have made a difference.

In another study, rainbow trout that received injections of acetic acid in their lips began to breathe more quickly, rocked back and forth on the bottom of the tank, rubbed their lips against the gravel and the side of the tank, and took more than twice as long to resume feeding as fish injected with benign saline. Fish injected with both acid and morphine also showed some of these unusual behaviors, but to a much lesser extent, whereas fish injected with saline never behaved oddly.

Testing for pain in fish is challenging, so researchers often look for unusual behavior and physiological responses. In one study, rainbow trout given injections of acetic acid in their lips responded by rubbing their lips on the sides and bottom of their tank and delaying feeding. (arc F. Henning / Alamy)

Several years ago, Lynne Sneddon, a University of Liverpool biologist and one of the world’s foremost experts on fish pain, began conducting a set of particularly intriguing experiments so far, only some of the results have been published. In one test, she gave zebrafish the choice between two aquariums: one completely barren, the other containing gravel, a plant, and a view of other fish. They consistently preferred to spend time in the livelier, decorated chamber. When some fish were injected with acid, however, and the bleak aquarium was flooded with pain-numbing lidocaine, they switched their preference, abandoning the enriched tank. Sneddon repeated this study with one change: rather than suffusing the boring aquarium with painkiller, she injected it straight into the fish’s bodies, so they could take it with them wherever they swam. The fish remained among the gravel and greenery.

The collective evidence is now robust enough that biologists and veterinarians increasingly accept fish pain as a reality. “It’s changed so much,” Sneddon says, reflecting on her experiences speaking to both scientists and the general public. “Back in 2003, when I gave talks, I would ask, ‘Who believes fish can feel pain?’ Just one or two hands would go up. Now you ask the room and pretty much everyone puts their hands up.” In 2013, the American Veterinary Medical Association published new guidelines for the euthanasia of animals, which included the following statements: “Suggestions that finfish responses to pain merely represent simple reflexes have been refuted. … the preponderance of accumulated evidence supports the position that finfish should be accorded the same considerations as terrestrial vertebrates in regard to relief from pain.”

Yet this scientific consensus has not permeated public perception. Google “do fish feel pain” and you plunge yourself into a morass of conflicting messages. They don’t, says one headline. They do, says another. Other sources claim there’s a convoluted debate raging between scientists. In truth, that level of ambiguity and disagreement no longer exists in the scientific community. In 2016, University of Queensland professor Brian Key published an article titled “Why fish do not feel pain” in Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling. So far, Key’s article has provoked more than 40 responses from scientists around the world, almost all of whom reject his conclusions.

Key is one of the most vociferous critics of the idea that fish can consciously suffer the other is James D. Rose, a professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Wyoming and an avid fisherman who has written for the pro-angling publication Angling Matters. The thrust of their argument is that the studies ostensibly demonstrating pain in fish are poorly designed and, more fundamentally, that fish lack brains complex enough to generate a subjective experience of pain. In particular, they stress that fish do not have the kind of large, dense, undulating cerebral cortices that humans, primates, and certain other mammals possess. The cortex, which envelops the rest of the brain like bark, is thought to be crucial for sensory perceptions and consciousness.

Some of the critiques published by Key and Rose are valid, particularly on the subject of methodological flaws. A few studies in the growing literature on fish pain do not properly distinguish between a reflexive response to injury and a probable experience of pain, and some researchers have overstated the significance of these flawed efforts. At this point, however, such studies are in the minority. Many experiments have confirmed the early work of Braithwaite and Sneddon.

Moreover, the notion that fish do not have the cerebral complexity to feel pain is decidedly antiquated. Scientists agree that most, if not all, vertebrates (as well as some invertebrates) are conscious and that a cerebral cortex as swollen as our own is not a prerequisite for a subjective experience of the world. The planet contains a multitude of brains, dense and spongy, globular and elongated, as small as poppy seeds and as large as watermelons different animal lineages have independently conjured similar mental abilities from very different neural machines. A mind does not have to be human to suffer.

Fishermen Michael and Patrick Burns practice humane fishing techniques on their vessel, Blue North. (Photo by Kevin J. Suver/Blue North)

Despite the evidence of conscious suffering in fish, they are not typically afforded the kind of legal protections given to farm animals, lab animals, and pets in many countries around the world. The United Kingdom has some of the most progressive animal welfare legislation, which typically covers all nonhuman vertebrates. In Canada and Australia, animal welfare laws are more piecemeal, varying from one state or province to another some protect fish, some don’t. Japan’s relevant legislation largely neglects fish. China has very few substantive animal welfare laws of any kind. And in the United States, the Animal Welfare Act protects most warm-blooded animals used in research and sold as pets, but excludes fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Yet the sheer number of fish killed for food and bred for pet stores dwarfs the corresponding numbers of mammals, birds, and reptiles. Annually, about 70 billion land animals are killed for food around the world. That number includes chickens, other poultry, and all forms of livestock. In contrast, an estimated 10 to 100 billion farmed fish are killed globally every year, and about another one to three trillion fish are caught from the wild. The number of fish killed each year far exceeds the number of people who have ever existed on Earth.

“We have largely thought of fish as very alien and very simple, so we didn’t really care how we killed them,” Braithwaite says. “If we look at trawl netting, that’s a pretty gruesome way for fish to die: the barometric trauma of getting ripped from the ocean into open air, and then slowly suffocating. Can we do that more humanely? Yes. Should we? Probably, yes. We’re mostly not doing it at the moment because it’s more expensive to kill fish humanely, especially in the wild.”

In some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Norway, fish farms have largely adopted humane slaughter methods. Instead of suffocating fish in air—the easiest and historically the most common practice—or freezing them to death in ice water, or poisoning them with carbon dioxide, they render fish unconscious with either a quick blow to the head or strong electrical currents, then pierce their brains or bleed them out. In Norway, Hanne Digre and her colleagues at the research organization SINTEF have brought these techniques onto commercial fishing vessels on a trial basis to investigate whether humane slaughter is feasible out at sea.

In a series of experiments, Digre and her colleagues tested different open-sea slaughter methods on a variety of species. They found that cod and haddock stored in dry bins on ships after harvest remained conscious for at least two hours. An electric shock delivered immediately after bringing fish onto a ship could knock them unconscious, but only if the current was strong enough. If the electric shock was too weak, the fish were merely immobilized. Some species, such as saithe, tended to break their spines and bleed internally when shocked others, such as cod, struggled much less. Some fish regained consciousness about 10 minutes after being stunned, so the researchers recommend cutting their throats within 30 seconds of an electric shock.

In the United States, two brothers are pioneering a new kind of humane fishing. In fall of 2016, Michael and Patrick Burns, both longtime fishermen and cattle ranchers, launched a unique fishing vessel named Blue North. The 58-meter boat, which can carry about 750 tonnes and a crew of 26, specializes in harvesting Pacific cod from the Bering Sea. The crew works within a temperature-controlled room in the middle of the boat, which houses a moon pool—a hole through which they haul up fish one at a time. This sanctuary protects the crew from the elements and gives them much more control over the act of fishing than they would have on an ordinary vessel. Within seconds of bringing a fish to the surface, the crew moves it to a stun table that renders the animal unconscious with about 10 volts of direct current. The fish are then bled.

The Burns brothers were initially inspired by groundbreaking research on humane slaughter facilities for livestock conducted by Colorado State University animal science professor and internationally renowned autism spokesperson Temple Grandin. By considering the perspectives of the animals themselves, Grandin’s innovative designs greatly reduced stress, panic, and injury in cattle being herded toward an abattoir, while simultaneously making the whole process more efficient for ranchers. “One day it occurred to me, why couldn’t we take some of those principles and apply them to the fishing industry? Michael recalls. Inspired by moon pools on Norwegian fishing vessels, and the use of electrical stunning in various forms of animal husbandry, they designed Blue North. Michael thinks his new ship is one of perhaps two vessels in the world to consistently use electrical stunning on wild-caught fish. “We believe that fish are sentient beings, that they do experience panic and stress,” he says. “We have come up with a method to stop that.”

Right now, the Burns brothers export the cod they catch to Japan, China, France, Spain, Denmark, and Norway. The fact that the fish are humanely harvested has not been a big draw for their main buyers, Michael says, but he expects that will change. He and his team have been speaking with various animal welfare organizations to develop new standards and certifications for humanely caught wild fish. “It will become more common,” Michael says. “A lot of people out there are concerned with where their food comes from and how it’s handled.”

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the trillions of fish slaughtered annually are killed in ways that likely cause them immense pain. The truth is that even the adoption of humane slaughter methods in more progressive countries has not been entirely or even primarily motivated by ethics. Rather, such changes are driven by profit. Studies have shown that reducing stress in farmed and caught fish, killing them swiftly and efficiently with minimal struggle, improves the quality of the meat that eventually makes it to market. The flesh of fish killed humanely is often smoother and less blemished. When we treat fish well, we don’t really do it for their sake we do it for ours.

“I’ve always had a natural empathy for animals and had no reason to exclude fish,” Brown says. “At that park [in Melbourne], they didn’t have any concern that there were fish in there and they might need some water. There was no attempt to save them or house them whatsoever. I was shocked by that at that age, and I still see that kind of callous disregard for fish in people today in all sorts of contexts. In all the time since we discovered the first evidence for pain in fish, I don’t think public perception has moved an ounce.”

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time at my local pet stores, watching the fish. They move restlessly, noiselessly—leglessly pacing from one side of their tanks to another. Some hang in the water, heads tilted up, as though caught on an invisible line. A glint of scales draws my attention an unexpected swatch of color. I try to look one in the eye—a depthless disc of obsidian. Its mouth moves so mechanically, like a sliding door stuck in a loop. I look at these fish, I enjoy looking at them, I do not wish them any harm yet I almost never wonder what they are thinking or feeling. Fish are our direct evolutionary ancestors. They are the original vertebrates, the scaly, stubby-limbed pioneers who crawled still wet from the sea and colonized the land. So many gulfs separate us now: geographical, anatomical, psychological. We can understand, rationally, the overwhelming evidence for fish sentience. But the facts are not enough. Genuinely pitying a fish seems to require an Olympian feat of empathy.

Perhaps, though, our typical interactions with fish—the placid pet in a glass puddle, or the garnished filet on a plate—are too circumscribed to reveal a capacity for suffering. I recently learned of a culinary tradition, still practiced today, known as ikizukuri: eating the raw flesh of a living fish. You can find videos online. In one, a chef covers a fish’s face with a cloth and holds it down as he shaves off its scales with something like a crude cheese grater. He begins to slice the fish lengthwise with a large knife, but the creature leaps violently from his grasp and somersaults into a nearby sink. The chef reclaims the fish and continues slicing away both its flanks. Blood as dark as pomegranate juice spills out. He immerses the fish in a bowl of ice water as he prepares the sashimi. The whole fish will be served on a plate with shaved daikon and shiso leaves, rectangular chunks of its flesh piled neatly in its hollowed side, its mouth and gills still flapping, and the occasional shudder rippling across the length of its body.

Watch the video: Boiling Live Baby Octopus (June 2022).


  1. Wine

    It seems to me an excellent idea. I agree with you.

  2. Stancliff

    I have never seen a better article.

  3. Tozshura

    It is usual reserve

  4. Vir

    Striking! Amazing!

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