Everyone has a routine for cooking lobster. For me and the missus, it goes like this:
I fill the pot with water and turn the stovetop burner to high. At the first sign of boiling, I head for the refrigerator and extract the two little monsters, holding them high as their tails flap wildly above the bubbling water.
I smile maniacally at my loving wife.
“I’m outta here,” she says, fleeing the kitchen as the cover goes down and the death rattle commences. “Let me know when it’s over.”
Our ritual came to mind this week when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released one of its trademark videos showing still-alive lobsters being separated from their shells, purportedly at the Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster processing plant in Rockland.
Claiming that the process violates Maine’s Animal Welfare Act, PETA on Wednesday made good on its vow to file a criminal complaint against Bean’s operation with the Rockland Police Department.
“All we are concerned with is determining whether a criminal violation has occurred under Maine’s animal cruelty law,” said Police Chief Bruce Boucher after examining the complaint Thursday morning.
Good luck with that one, Chief.
Under the statute, an “animal” is defined as “every living, sentient creature not a human being.”
(The operative word here is “sentient,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “able to feel, see, hear, smell or taste.”)
Maine law also defines “torment, torture and cruelty” against animals as “every act, omission or neglect, whether by the owner or any other person, where unjustifiable physical pain, suffering or death is caused or permitted.”
(The operative word here is “unjustifiable,” which in my household has traditionally been offset by the fact that I love lobster.)
Now I admit that my normal reflex reaction to anything PETA puts out is extreme skepticism — or, in the case of those bikini-clad, anti-circus activists who showed up in Post Office Park one cold October afternoon a decade or so ago, extreme curiosity.
But this latest act of PETA guerrilla warfare got me thinking: Once and for all, do lobsters, or do they not, feel pain?
In other words, is my wife right to flee the kitchen? And if so, what does that make me — a sadistic homo sapien with no regard (pass the melted butter, please) for the lowly crustacean?
For answers to those and other heretofore not-so-troubling questions, I put in a call Thursday to Robert Elwood, a professor of animal behavior at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Elwood enjoys a lobster as much as the next carnivore. But several years ago, a well-known TV chef asked him out of the blue, “Do lobsters feel pain?”
“I thought, ‘What a silly question. You could never really tackle it,’ ” recalled Elwood. “But, never put off by stupidity, I sort of went for it over the years.”
His widely heralded research has focused not on lobsters per se, but rather on “decapod” (10-legged) crustaceans ranging from prawns (aka shrimp) to shore crabs to hermit crabs — all of which exhibit enough response to what we would consider “painful” stimuli to at least raise the possibility they feel pain.
(Talking to Elwood in itself can be an uncomfortable experience: In less than a half-hour, he told me to imagine picking up a hot plate, being burned by a lit cigarette and having my legs torn off. “Sorry to be so threatening in this interview,” he apologized.)
From the prawn that showed “prolonged grooming and rubbing” of an antenna after it was dabbed with a noxious sodium hydroxide solution, to hermit crabs that made the “motivational trade-off” between an inferior snail-shell shelter with no electricity and a superior shell that came equipped with a low-level jolt of current (they tolerated the “pain” in exchange for safety), Elwood has determined that the arbitrary pain-and-suffering line we humans draw between vertebrates and invertebrates may be a bunch of bunk.
“All the experiments are consistent,” said Elwood. “Now I can’t say I proved pain — all I can say is, their responses are very similar to those of vertebrates.”
The irony is that if Elwood carried out his mildly nasty experiments on, say, the family dog or cat and concluded that it had more than just a reflex reaction, “people would say, ‘Well, that’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? Because they feel pain.’ “
Not so in the world without backbones.
“We don’t particularly like invertebrates,” noted Elwood. “We don’t treat them with any regard.”
Explaining that is a task better suited for the psychologists and philosophers. Not surprisingly, however, Elwood has become the go-to scientist for PETA, which showed him the alleged Linda Bean’s video and got him to say that the process, as recorded, “is not designed to minimize the potential for suffering.”
But how about actual suffering? Can anyone prove that?
“No,” Elwood replied. “This is the sad thing about all (animal) welfare studies. You cannot prove what an animal is feeling. You can’t prove consciousness, you can’t prove sentience, you can’t prove pain.”
Elwood’s suggestion: Give lobsters and other crustaceans the same “benefit of the doubt” we give warm-blooded links on our food chain.
Instant death, that’s how.
Elwood, while stressing that he’s in no way affiliated with the manufacturer, directed my attention to the “Crustastun,” a British-made device that essentially electrocutes the lobster seconds before its meat is removed – much as cattle are stunned just before slaughter.
With the nervous system completely “denatured,” Elwood said, “there’s no longer any welfare concern. You could stun it and you’re away.”
Fellow Mainers, I give you Crustastun’s “batch stunner.” According to the company’s website (www.crustastun.com), it zaps as much as two tons of lobsters per hour and “can pay for itself in six months” through “reduced operational costs.”
But wait, there’s more!
“The animals do not get stressed during the process,” the company boasts. “And, as a result, the meat tastes better.” Now we’re onto something.
While Elwood is very careful about how his research is cited by PETA, he suspects Maine’s lobster industry could add a pre-shelling shock to the front of its assembly line without going belly-up.
“I think people should be concerned about animal welfare,” Elwood said. “Some people take it to extremes – and I have to point out I’m not a campaigner. I’m a scientist who eats lobsters, given the opportunity. But I would like to think they’ve been killed swiftly.”
Me too – although, considering its price of $3,500-plus, I’m not quite ready to become the proud owner of a Crustastun “single stunner.”
Next time I lower our lobsters into the pot, I’ll just toss in the wife’s hair dryer.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: