Ecocentric

Do Crabs Feel Pain? Maybe — and Maybe We Should Rethink Eating Them

We boil crabs and lobsters alive because it tastes better, and also because we assume they can't feel pain. But a new study sheds doubt on that idea and should make us pause before our next meaty meal

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Eiichi Onodera / Emi Kimata

Do lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans feel pain? We certainly act as if they don’t, cramming them in tanks with their claws wired shut, tossing them as if they were a football. And then there’s the cooking itself — most chefs, professional and amateur, cook lobsters and crabs alive, usually by dumping them in boiling water. Along with the melted butter, that’s the appeal of crustaceans — there’s no fresher food. We may feel a frisson of guilt, or maybe just discomfort, when we hear the creatures rattling around the inside of the pot as the water boils. But that feeling usually dissolves for lobster lovers by the time we crack open a claw and dig out the succulent meat. We wouldn’t dream of doing the same thing to a live chicken or pig, which are dead well before the cooking process begins, but those vaguely insect-looking crustaceans are different. They don’t even feel pain. Right?

Actually, they just might. That’s the conclusion of a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Robert Elwood and Barry Magee of Queen’s University in Belfast examined the reaction of common shore crabs — a close relation to the crabs that end up on our dinner plate — to small electrical shocks. Ninety crabs were individually placed in a brightly lit area and were given the option of scuttling to one of two dark shelters. (Shore crabs, like many crustaceans, like to hide in dark, tight spaces.) Once they’d made their choice, the crabs in one of the shelters were exposed to an electric shock. After a rest period, the crabs were returned to the lit tank. Most of the crabs went back into the dark shelters, and then the same crabs were given another electric shock. (Science, like cooking, can sometimes seem cruel.) When they were placed back into the lit tank for the third time, the majority of the shocked crabs instead went to the alternative dark shelter, avoiding the one where they had repeatedly been shocked.

(MORE: Eat Seafood — a Little Bit — and Mostly Plants)

As Elwood put it in a statement, the crabs’ choice indicated they wanted to escape the shocks:

Having experienced two rounds of shocks, the crabs learned to avoid the shelter where they received the shock. They were willing to give up their hideaway in order to avoid the source of their probable pain.

The design of the experiment is clever, and it had to be. It’s not easy to detect whether a voiceless invertebrate like a crab is feeling anything like what we might call pain. The key is the change in behavior. If you prick a live crab, it will bleed, but more to the point, it will react. But that’s a reflex action — known as nociception — that’s found in nearly every animal. But for the crab to feel the unpleasant effects of the shock, remember where it came from and then change its behavior to avoid that effect, indicates it may indeed be feeling something closer to pain. “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,” Elwood told the BBC.

This isn’t the first study to make the case that crabs, lobsters and other highly edible crustaceans may feel pain. In fact, it’s been an ongoing debate in the scientific and culinary worlds, as the late and great David Foster Wallace explored in his classic 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster”:

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?

It may well be. We’re unlikely to get definitive proof that a lobster does or does not feel pain, because, as Wallace points out later in the essay, we have no access to another creature’s feelings, especially across the species barrier. But I’m not sure it matters — ethically, at least. Boiling a lobster alive before eating it is different from other forms of meat consumption only in kind and perhaps cruelty. The life of the cow that makes our hamburger is still shortened by the cattle gun, the chicken is slaughtered with the knife, the pig bled to death. There are degrees of suffering endured by these animals on the way to our plate, and certainly our industrialized meat-production system isn’t designed to minimize that suffering. You can tell yourself that organic or sustainably raised meat is more humane, and you’d be right — but the man who buys his hamburgers at Whole Foods is closer to the guy who loves Big Macs than he is to a dedicated vegetarian.

(MORE: Lobster: Now Available in Multiple Colors)

The truth is, we don’t need to eat live lobsters, or cows or chicken or pigs. We do it because we enjoy it and deal with the ethical dilemma by thinking around it. And if you want to think about it, Wallace’s essay is a good place to start:

Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme — and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

As a meat eater, and a lobster lover, neither have I.

PHOTOS: Looking into the Eyes of Animals

149 comments
MisguidedMinstrel
MisguidedMinstrel

I dunno, if I dumped your body in the water, bound and gagged you, would you feel pain..?

RobertGrillo
RobertGrillo

Hi Brian, Thanks for having the rare moral courage to plainly define the choices we make and the results of those choices. There are no neutral choices. In the face of a multitude of non-animal based choices that are nutritious and satisfying at the same time, our choice to harm animals or pay someone else to harm animals in a manner that we would find incomprehensible, is a complete and utter betrayal of our common decency and respect for others who suffer as we do. There is no way to rationalize around this fact. No way to defend our tastebuds over their lives. If you force animals to suffer for your tastebuds, then you deny animals any serious moral consideration that would rightfully be theirs as beings who have, at the very least, a fervent interest in staying alive and avoiding pain and suffering.

yogachick
yogachick

Glad I am vegan! Go vegan!!!

craigvan
craigvan

The question is only the intensity that they feel pain.  If they didn't feel pain, how would they know to avoid injury?   It obviously doesn't involve much if any intellectualization on the crab's part.

rafvorsselmans
rafvorsselmans

Just go to www.earthlings.com and watch the documentary. Then you can decide if you want to participate in this madness...

clell65619
clell65619

- Have any of you complaining about how crabs and lobsters are prepared taken any notice of how they go about feeding themselves?  They consume their food alive when they can, including each other.

- How is it wrong to visit their own ways upon them?

blazingsaddles
blazingsaddles

Of course they feel pain.  What we do is barbaric.  I was watching a David Letterman show where he had some chef on and they were cooking live crab.  What's worse than tossing a live crab or lobster in a pot of boiling water?  Tossing them into a pot of not yet boiling water, so it's not hot enough yet to kill them instantly but slowly - while they are trying to climb out of the pot, and the chef kept pushing them back in.  Disgusting.  I couldn't change the channel fast enough unfortunately.  Restaurants and grocery stores that keep live lobsters in tanks for cooking, I don't shop at.  Frozen is good enough for anybody, tastes exactly the same.


modernmom23
modernmom23

There is a good reason I don't eat fresh crab or lobster.  It just seems cruel and wrong to boil some living creature alive just so I can enjoy its flesh.

I do eat chicken, beef, fish and pork however.  I still haven't worked out that moral issue: they are tasty but it's inhumane to kill them.  I try to limit myself, but its not easy to go vegetarian. 

JoshCrawley
JoshCrawley

Unfortunately, in order for us to eat, others must die. That is essential while living on this planet.


I always thank the beings that died so that I may live.

JakeSteffey
JakeSteffey

Plants are life and we should be grateful for their beauty and nutrients, but they are not sentient, they do not have a central-nervous system. A plant-based lifestyle is much healthier and infinitely more ethical than the typical Western flesh-based lifestyle.

Meat-industry lobbiests push their agenda via media commercialism everyday, and our countrymen and women are dying from heart disease while the arable soil used to feed America's slaughtered food could be used to feed starving children abroad. Go Vegan.

GeorgeConiglio
GeorgeConiglio

Some comments posted here an shocking lack of empathy. Should this be a topic for discussion? Crabs and Lobsters feel pain. Boiling them alive is brutal and we shouldn't do it. End of discussion.  I've found that when questioning long standing practices...there is much discomfort. which presents itself in the way of attacks.  If you have faith. If you have decency.... why would inflict such a painful death on anything? Is your compassion only measured in an animal's cuteness, intelligence, or how how closely related it is to humans?

SamCranford
SamCranford

Some would argue that plants, being full of life, can "feel" as well. Let's just starve to death and let the animals, plants and insects take over.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

I would like the haters to keep in mind that I am suggesting that the Vegan diet is mostly ideal... It could likely only be improved upon by eating meat a couple times a month.

I am suggesting that humans generally only consume meat once a day or once a week... In great amounts it is not all that healthy and I recognize that.

However I am suggesting that the human animal has always had a taste for limited amounts of meat and the existence of every primitive culture eating meat supports that... I humans have a taste for meat it is pretty damn likely we have found ways of eating it 100,000 years ago.

Being an apex predator has some benefits and is hardly the moral issue the vegans make it... 

The great majority of mankind that has ever lived did not give a damn to kill a chicken... Your morality is an anomaly and not the rule and has never been to rule for our entire evolutionary history.

Acanthephyra
Acanthephyra

Amoeba move away from stimulis they dont like. Does that mean they feel pain?

phrancis5
phrancis5

They need to hurry up and perfect genetically engineered  vat grown meat chunks so I can enjoy being a carnivore without the ethics and guilt...

DarylBrunt
DarylBrunt

OMFG we better stop using Bug spray to! Axphyxsiation is a horrible death for a Fly. People are pathetic and go over the top

SPadden
SPadden

The Joy of Cooking, that huge cookbook you mom may have had has a simple solution to this ethical dilemma. Just before dropping the lobsters into the pot, stick a pairing knife just behind the head carapace a give a twist. You will most likely instantly severe the main nerve from the lobster's brain to their body. and in theory remove the ability to feel pain.  The closest analogy I can think of is paralyzed people or people with nerve damage being unable to feel pain.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

Meat is a natural part of the human diet... granted it should be much less less a part of our diets but humanity has always enjoyed meat.

Other primates hunt and gather meat once in awhile... Chimps are brutal hunters when they want some meat in their diets.

For a couple millions years of our evolutionary history we have been killing animals and eating them... There is nothing unnatural about a human consuming flesh and while suffering should be minimized the Vegan nuts out there cannot claim that humans do not naturally eat meat...... Be Vegan if you want, but do not force your diet on the rest of us.

craigvan
craigvan

@clell65619 

Do you crap your pants and disturb others by crying when you're with babies?   Because they do it to you.

linq0311
linq0311

@blazingsaddles Well stated. If we are the most intelligent animal on the planet, it makes sense for us to take measures to reduce the suffering of the animals we consume. Eating meat likely won't change, since human beings are heterotrophs -- but that doesn't mean we can't be conscious of our actions and how they might unnecessarily harm another being. 

linq0311
linq0311

@modernmom23 I have the same problem. Hopefully a reasonable compromise or alternative can be reached within my lifetime. I don't know if I'll be the one to figure it out, but I certainly think about it every day. 

veganinguelph
veganinguelph

It's not a matter of death, it's a matter of suffering.  Death does not bother me, it is natural and it is necessary.  Suffering, however, breaks my heart.  That is why I'm vegan.  Other living beings should not suffer for our taste buds.

linq0311
linq0311

@JoshCrawley I know some hunters who are amazingly appreciative of the animals they take. They aren't your typical idiotic redneck who has no concern for the lives he takes. Unfortunately, these people are few and far between. 

linq0311
linq0311

@GeorgeConiglio The fact we are having this discussion at all illustrates the presence of conscious/responsible thought. There are ethical people out there, even if they seem to be few. One thing to remember when dealing with people is the fact that empathy and compassion are directly related to intelligence. 

cuylerbleecker
cuylerbleecker

@SamCranford The fact that you make a distinction between 'animals' and 'insects' shows something about your vast knowledge on the issue

vidya
vidya

@SamCranford 
yes, animals and insects and plants will take over the world, when humans stop breeding them in millions for consumption. what a logic!

resser
resser

@Hadrewsky  No one is hating you for eating meat. The author is making an argument that long after we are gone our descendants might look upon as uncouth barbarians for the way we industrially raise, kill and eat meat. Humans also took part in Cannibalism before out growing the taste for their own brethren. Humans also learnt to do chores on their own or pay for help without having to own slaves. Do you follow where I am going with this?

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

For all that people mentioning that humans do not eat raw meat I would have you know that I really enjoy eating raw steak tartar... safely prepared raw steak is wonderful.

Something inside the vast majority of humans loves eating flesh... we have the drive naturally within all but a few oddballs rolling around the edges as a fluke.

Not that I eat much meat often... I prepare raw steak only a few times a year.

simplyKENT
simplyKENT

@phrancis5 It's happening as we speak (type). I just attended a scientific meeting in which this news was delivered. A small sample of a pig was extracted (not harming the pig), as it was transformed and grown into a healthy meat snack. Actually, the meat is grown into a texture that resembles packaged meat, then is put through a process to add healthy nutrients while keeping its original flavor....then pumping out the meat into a desired shape. Imagine, meat that is good for us while not harming the animal. I can't disclose references, sorry. Trust me.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

Animals are also not people in a different body... They have limited faculties with regards to their minds with some notable exceptions such as dolphins, elephants, and high primates.

Suffering should always be minimized but is acceptable if it provides serious benefit to mankind such as medical testing upon rats.

rats are often injected with nasty diseases so that we may understand the disease and ways to treat it... Such work is important enough to continue despite suffering... after all a rat does not see the world the way a human does.... Pointless suffering is always wrong.

It is so pathetically childish to view animals with such weak brains as little people in furry shapes.

clell65619
clell65619

@craigvan @clell65619 Way to necro a thread with an absolutely stupid comment Craig-i-poo.  I'm guessing the best part of you ran down your mother's leg, but that's probably optimistic on my part.

cuylerbleecker
cuylerbleecker

@linq0311 @blazingsaddles Couldn't agree with you more. The people who give the excuse that animals are cruel to each other in nature could definitely learn a lesson from this.

GeorgeConiglio
GeorgeConiglio

@linq0311 @GeorgeConiglio I agree that having this discussion is a first step toward mindful consideration. Though I believe intelligence  can be far apart from empathy and compassion.  

phrancis5
phrancis5

@simplyKENT  Oh I believe you. They've been talking about vat grown meat for awhile. Hey if they can use a 3D printer loaded with cells to grow an ear I'm sure they'll be mass producing fake meat. The question is how soon will this happen on a massive and affordable scale and will there always be culinary "purists" who will insist that their meat had years of experience and a tasty soul...

Toadnuke
Toadnuke

@Hadrewsky Furthermore, you demonstrate your lack of evolutionary biology education by talking about the "weak brains" of other species. Evolution does not go in a neat little line from lower organisms to higher ones. Each species is adapted for it's respective environment. Before you dismiss people as childish for caring for organisms with "weak brains" you have to define EXACTLY what you mean by "weak brains". 

Some animals have senses that are developed far beyond the scope of our own. A fish's sense of touch is a perfect example; you can touch the surface of water in a tank and the fish are clearly aware of it. Most birds have enhanced eyesight and most mammals have a better sense of smell and more sensitive ears than we do... just what criteria are you going by? Obviously most animals do not possess the highly developed cognitive abilities that humans do, but is that really the only argument that you can present? If so, it's a pretty damn weak one.

Toadnuke
Toadnuke

@HadrewskyPlease tell me you're trolling... You claim to have knowledge of our evolutionary history but you clearly demonstrate a total lack of evolutionary understanding... you have to heat meat to 160F before you eat it if you're a human... other carnivorous species do not need to do this. If our stomachs do not produce the enzymes necessary to resist/breakdown the bacteria in raw flesh, then you can not pretend that it is a natural part of our diet. Eating meat is horrible for the human body in almost every way, the only exception being higher concentrations of protein, which you can get FAR more efficiently from other sources (nuts, legumes, etc.). You're clearly entrenched in your "understanding" of this issue so I'll just leave my response here in the hopes that it makes some penetration.

SamanthaBattaglia
SamanthaBattaglia

@Hadrewsky I'm a Vegan and i live just great without any meat products or even dairy products in my diet. I don't believe we have the right to experiment, slaughter, or torture animals who cant speak for themselves, and absolutely feel pain. Honestly i could continue this conversation for days but you aren't going to change your opinion and i'm most definitely not going to change mine.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

I do feel that when medical research is done upon apes and such animals with LEGITIMATE abilities for profound suffering that pain relief should be provided... The worth of the animal is directly related to the animal's mental faculties.

linq0311
linq0311

@clell65619 @craigvan Craig embarrassed you with a completely logical statement, and you returned to further embarrass yourself by offering another ignorant statement -- as if your first one wasn't bad enough. Priceless! 

I'd like to impart this piece of wisdom to you, in an effort to assist you in improving your future endeavors in debate:

Ad hominem

An attack upon an opponent in order to discredit their arguement or opinion. Ad hominems are used by immature and/or unintelligent people because they are unable to counter their opponent using logic and intelligence.

simplyKENT
simplyKENT

@phrancis5 Oh yes, the purists are out there, but if people eat McDonald's, they'll eat anything. I doubt we'll ever do away with real animal meat, but the market will surely be divided and headed in the right direction. As for "how long?" Good question. I heard some interesting plans about meteor/asteroid harvesting as well...but that's another story, and probably further out : )

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@vidya @Hadrewsky 


Put it this way


your great great great ancestors^10 were eating meat


that is the whole point bonehead

vidya
vidya

@Hadrewsky
Cave men did this... cavemen did that... time to go back to the caves don't you think?

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@Toadnuke @Hadrewsky 


Toad you should also know I love eating raw steak tartar... a couple times a year.

safely prepared raw meat can be very tasty... You do indeed have a rather limited number of animals it is safe to eat raw.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

 Toad I define an organism's value based upon sapience, self awareness, sentience, and the complexity of an organism's mind as defining the value of an organism.

I locust's mind is so weak I would not give half a damn to kill 10 billion of the suckers to feed a family a loaf of bread... I am perfectly aware that all organisms are equally evolved and would enjoy it very much if you would prefer to talk from an evolutionary perspective but keeping in mind my definition of value.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@CandiceLeeGerber-Nuñez

Ah the ever present troll vegan.

I am very open to a good point made on either side of this issue... I would especially like to say that Toad has a complex knowledge of the issues and on some levels I cannot refute his reasoning.

Some of this comes down to morality- If killing a million rats would save a child I would do it and not even think of the creatures. This is the reason I support medical testing.

Toad makes some very good points but I think he underestimates how meat has been consumed in the distant past... I cannot rule out humans existing as vegans 100,000 years ago but I would bet a fortune that meat was being consumed by these humans if only once a week.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@Toadnuke 

You have fair examples Toad and while I 100% agree that all species are equally evolved the human animal in the only animal that is self aware. (possible exceptions for dolphins and a few others)... We value awareness... This is why killing a nest of ants is morally fine.

We need medical testing of animals at least for the near future... I feel that this exploitation is fine if it is saving kids with cancer etc

. (would you trade your child for the lives of a 1000 rats?) - That is the promise of medical research.

As for our evolutionary history you seem adept at knowledge of evolution - I therefore suggest that the ability to digest small amounts of meat is part of human history for several reasons, highlighting that our digestive prowess probably was greater in the distant past and only decreased in capacity as fire was invented or perhaps much earlier as drying meat and fish was invented. Secondly we eat meat in every culture on earth and without exception primitive wild tribes of mankind EAT MEAT... You dont see the modern cavemen living as vegans do you?

Also I would like to highlight that I am suggesting that the human animal ate VERY SMALL AMOUNTS OF MEAT for all of its history until the recent past... I am saying that the men before cavemen were eating meat infrequently and perhaps once a week.

CandiceLeeGerber-Nuñez
CandiceLeeGerber-Nuñez

@Toadnuke,

There is no use arguing with such a "weak minded" individual as Hadrewsky. He understands little, which means that his importance is minimal at best.

Toadnuke
Toadnuke

@clell65619 You're clever... just kidding. By efficient, I mean that pound-for-pound, legumes, tree nuts, and certain grains have higher protein concentrations. You're either nutritionally obtuse, or more likely, you're too lazy to eat a variety of foods in order to get a complete protein. 

If by "markedly similar" you mean they have a stomach, then you are correct. At any rate, if you could only eat meat in it's natural state, you probably would have died of a bacteriological or parasitical infection by now. Not to mention you can only bare to eat it after you gussy it up to satisfy your palate. 

Yes, meat consumption predates fire, but you should also note the fact that the human life expectancy was around 22 years at that time too. 

clell65619
clell65619

Uh, bull.  Heat doesn't have to be heated at all to eat it.  Consumption of meat predated fire, and our evolutionary cousins the Chimps, whose digestive system is markedly similar to oure will consume meat when they can get it, all without . 

If you meant that cooking meat allows for easier digestion, then you're correct.  Cooking meat removes the need for long nap times most mammalian preditors requre to digest meats.

And remember, the only reason you can make your declarations about the surperiority of your 'better sources of protein' is because your ancestors ate meat to build the brain you're pretending to understand.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@SamanthaBattaglia @Hadrewsky 

You are the one in the hole... 999% of you fellow man cares not if it chucks a rat into a wood chipper


your beliefs are abnormal to the rest of your kind,

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@anna 

as for your beliefs go on and have them but know that 99.9%% of your fellow man has no qualms about smashing a rat with a rock.


you are the abnomality

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@anna 

The ability of one species to kill another species is its own morality in the apex predator system.

And when it comes to medical research i will gladly sacrifice 10,0000 bunnies for the life of a child.... that is what medical research is all about.

anna
anna

A life is a life, no matter how small. What makes yours more important than a cow's life of an ant's life. Did they choose the body they were made in? No. There is an obvious difference between body and mind. We live in our bodies. TO show how separate our minds and bodies are think of this. At no time do we know exactly what our body is doing, how it is exactly functioning or even if we have a disease. We only use our bodies to be able to function in these dimensions. Did you choose to have a human body? No. Granted the human body has given you self awareness, but that does not make other lives less precious than yours. Morality has not been proven by science and is one of the greatest arguments for intelligent design. Struggle to survive (which is the main goal of humans) is NOT explained with emotions. Yet, we have them. Society could not have formed these emotions because there would be no need if we were living in a naturalist world. 

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

 @SamanthaBattaglia @Hadrewsky 

Sam your morality is but a fluke in human history... I suggest to think about the fact that for every human that has ever lived for the past half million nearly ALL of the them did not give a flying damn if they killed a rat with a rock.

ColeenGalvin
ColeenGalvin

@clell65619   Glucose is the only fuel normally used by brain cells. This blood sugar is obtained from carbohydrates: the starches and sugars you eat in the form of grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables. These are the foods that feed the brain. “Meat” is not brain food, quite literally. Excess cholesterol from eating animal products leads to a waxy accumulation that could block the blood flow to the heart or to the brain. Poor circulation to the brain causing Alzheimer’s is caused by eating animal products. In addition, “A BBC News story entitled ‘Starch ‘fuel of human evolution’: Man’s ability to digest starchy foods like the potato may explain our success on the planet’, genetic work suggests. Compared with primates, humans have many more copies of a gene essential for breaking down calorie-rich starches, Nature Genetics reports. And these extra calories may have been crucial for feeding the larger brains of humans, speculate the University of California Santa Cruz authors. Previously, experts had wondered if “meat” in the diet was the answer.”, having a large brain does not necessarily mean that humans use it to their full capacity. And even more significantly, nor does being intelligent necessarily mean being ethical or kind. The school of thought of non-participation in exploiting other animals; human or nonhuman, is based on their sentience, not on their intelligence or brain size. We would not harm a mentally disabled human because they are less intelligent. 

cuylerbleecker
cuylerbleecker

@Hadrewsky @SamanthaBattaglia I know this is late, but seriously dude this isn't about the vegan diet and/or your weird obsession with trying to defame it (seriously man is this like a personal thing for you or what?). This is about cruelty and empathy and something everyone, no matter the lifestyle, should be able to connect with on some level as a human being.


p.s. Pretty interesting statistics you got there, where'd you find those numbers?