This blog contains some distressing details.
In the world of invertebrates like lobsters, pain is only just beginning to be explored and understood. These animals have suffered greatly for this, as until recently, it was assumed they could feel no pain as they do not show the exact same signs we do, or a dog does, for example. And very little research was conducted to find out what they can feel.
So awful things were—and still are—done to them, like boiling them alive, ripping off their claws or slicing them in half while they are still alive, all under the false idea that they can’t feel a thing. Science is now showing that these incredible animals are clearly capable of experiencing and remembering pain, so it’s time these practices ended for good.
What Kind of Animal Is the Lobster?
Lobsters are complex animals, with intricate lifestyles, who should be left off our plates and left alone to live out their remarkable 100-year lifespans. They belong to the crustacean species group and over 100 types of lobster can be found across the world. The most common are the American Lobster and European Lobster, who live on their respective sides of the Atlantic ocean. Both types are “harvested” relentlessly and are some of the most commonly caught aquatic species on the planet.
Lobsters Are Sensitive
Despite their tough-looking exterior, lobsters are extremely sensitive and delicate animals. As they cannot see or hear very well, their sense of touch is highly developed due to the thousands of tiny hairs that protrude from gaps in their shells. Lobsters are extremely sensitive to temperature changes and will travel up to 160km just to find the right temperature of water to breed.
Lobsters Can’t Go Into Shock
Zoologists have found that, unlike humans and other animals, a lobster’s nervous system does not shut down when exposed to extreme pain or suffering. When thrown into a pot of boiling water it can take up to 35-45 seconds for them to die and when dismembered, their nervous systems can stay active for up to an hour. Without shock, these experiences must be excruciatingly painful.
PETA was the first organization to film undercover in a lobster-processing factory. They discovered that lobsters and crabs were being cut in half, impaled on metal spikes, had their insides pulled out, and their claws ripped off with no stunning or anesthetic. The film is incredibly distressing, with the animals clearly surviving up to an hour after dismemberment.
Lobsters Don’t Get ‘Old’
Well, not in the human sense of the word! Lobsters can live to over 100 years old but they don’t appear to suffer from any decline in strength and vitality as they get older. They are not immortal animals, however. Lobsters grow by ‘molting,’ the act of replacing their shell which requires a lot of energy. Eventually, as they get larger, they die from expending too much energy during this process.
Lobsters Feel Pain
Research has clearly shown that lobsters, crabs, and other crustaceans can and do experience pain. Scientists have shown that their reaction to painful stimuli is more than just a reflex response and instead, they learn from painful stimuli and change their behavior. In some upsetting experiments designed to show that crustaceans do feel pain, crabs were found to move to a less favorable shelter after being given an electric shock in their favored shelter, often after just one experience. This shows rapid changes in behavior based on exposure to pain, which is much more than just a simple reflexive reaction, and proves these animals can experience and remember painful sensations.
Now, consider that if a small electric shock can produce a clear pain response—imagine how they must feel being boiled or cut up alive.
Lobsters Have Receptors on Their Claws
Lobsters’ claws are much more than just sharp defensive tools. Lobsters can favor their left or right limb, or be ambidextrous, just like humans, and their claws possess sensitive receptors which they use to detect food around them.
Lobsters May Experience Anxiety
Research suggests that crustaceans like lobsters can experience ‘human-like’ anxiety and it can be treated with the same medication as humans use. In another unpleasant study, crayfish (a close relation to lobsters) were exposed to electric shocks of varying strength, then placed in a tank with dark areas and light areas. Those who had been administered more severe electric shocks favored their familiar darker spaces, whereas others felt comfortable exploring the lighter parts of the tank, a clear indicator of varied levels of anxiety. Those crayfish who experienced higher levels of anxiety were then administered chlordiazepoxide (CDZ), an anti-anxiety drug, and their behavior clearly changed as the animals became more confident and less inhibited. Brain scans during this process showed spikes in brain chemicals such as serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with anxiety in the human brain.
Why Do People Cook Lobsters Alive?
‘Food safety’ is the main reason given for boiling lobsters alive. Once a lobster dies, harmful bacteria are present in their flesh just a few hours later, which even cooking cannot remove. But we don’t have to inflict this suffering; we could just not eat them at all. It seems like a simple choice to us.
The myth that lobsters and other crustaceans cannot feel pain has meant people unknowingly, or perhaps without thinking about it too much, have caused severe pain and distress. Even if we can’t be sure that they experience pain, shouldn’t we still err on the side of caution and avoid boiling any being alive? Isn’t that just a compassionate decision to make?
Do Lobsters Feel Pain When Boiled?
The evidence shows that they do. It may not be exactly the same pain that we would feel as humans in this situation, and we can never fully understand what they are experiencing, but we can be sure they are feeling something, and all the scientific evidence suggests that it’s very painful. Videos of lobsters being boiled alive show that they whip their tails and claw at the sides of the pot in desperate attempts to escape, suggesting they are under extreme stress and in severe pain. The signs are clear if we just take a moment to look.
Do Lobsters Scream When Boiled Alive?
This is a myth, lobsters do not have a voice box or lungs, so they cannot scream. It’s more likely that this sound is steam escaping from their shell. But not screaming does not indicate they are not suffering.
Do Lobsters Feel Pain When Cut In Half?
Again, all the evidence shows that they do. And considering their nervous systems cannot go into shock, they are likely to feel this pain for up to an hour after being cut in half.
How To Know if Lobsters Feel Pain?
Pain is a complex concept that can be exhibited in a variety of different ways and our understanding of pain in animals, especially invertebrates, is still relatively limited. There are two components of pain that science can use to explain pain responses in animals: nociception and experience of pain. Understanding how these concepts are exhibited in animals, helps us understand their experience.
Nociception refers to a reflex response to a potentially painful experience that causes us to move away from something harmful. Think about pulling your hand away from a hot stove, even before we have experienced the actual pain of touching it. This concept can be seen clearly in nearly all animals including humans, and is a natural, uncontrollable response. Nociception is not the same thing as pain, as it doesn’t result in any long-term behavioral change or change in awareness and does not form any memory of the experience.
The Experience of Pain
The experience of pain is very different and beings that feel pain almost always exhibit changes in behavior following a painful experience. Robert Elwood is a professor of biological sciences and his experiments with lobsters and other crustaceans have shown that these animals respond with much more than merely a reflexive response. They show clear changes in behavior and will even give up favorable hiding places to avoid a repeated electric shock. They can clearly remember the unpleasant experience of pain and learn to avoid it, just in the same way humans, dogs, and other animals do.
Is It Illegal To Boil Lobsters Alive in the U.S.?
No, but it should be! New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland have done the right thing and made it illegal to boil lobsters alive. Other countries like the UK are considering similar laws. We’d go further, of course, and suggest we leave these incredible animals in the ocean where they belong.
So it’s clear that lobsters and other crustaceans are capable of experiencing pain. Yet people persist in causing them serious suffering and harm, either through ignorance, or through lack of concern for our fellow creatures. There are humane devices which stun and kill lobsters, which some restaurants may use, but isn’t the most humane act of all not to take the life of these beautiful, complex and unique animals? Doesn’t our humanity shine through when we make kinder choices?