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.

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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.

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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.

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