September 20, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Lobsters feel pain? Let's ask expert

By Bill Nemitz

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.

She grimaces.

"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.

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