The Current

Should boiling lobsters alive be banned? Experts disagree on whether crustaceans can feel pain

Switzerland has banned boiling lobsters alive, is it time to show these creatures we care about their feelings — even if many scientists argue they don't have any?
In Switzerland boiling lobsters are banned without stunning them first. Some argue the ‘cockroach of the sea’ deserves more protection globally. (CBC)
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Originally published on February 8, 2018.

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Cooks on Canada's East Coast have been dropping live lobsters into pots of boiling water forever. 

Lobster boils are even used in ads to lure tourists, and then entertain them seaside once they arrive. 

But with Switzerland preparing to ban the practice of boiling live lobsters without first stunning them, many lobster lovers are scratching their heads and asking: are we cruel? 

And unfortunately, it appears, science doesn't have a definitive answer.

While researchers are discovering lobsters are more complex than previously thought, there remains a boiling debate about whether the crustaceans actually feel pain. 

 "You can't know for sure," said Shelley Adamo, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

Lobsters and insects are cousins - they're arthropods. Professor Shelley Adamo doesn't think there's any emotional side in insects or lobsters because they don't have enough brain mass. (pixabay.com)

Adamo uses crickets in her research. They, like lobsters, are arthropods, a group of invertebrate animals that includes both insects and crustaceans. 

She doesn't believe arthropods feel pain.

"Their brains are very, very different from ours. And they're also very, very small," Adamo told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Psychology professor Shelley Adamo explains the consequences if insects are considered to feel pain, without definite proof. 0:45

Nevertheless, Adamo said that as a scientist who works with a lab full of crickets, she has wondered whether her "little guys" feel pain. And before dissecting their brains or taking blood, she anaesthetizes the crickets by chilling them.

"It's this respect for life thing that I want to instill in my students," she said. "Even though it's just a little life."

Switzerland's law came into effect March 1st but it isn't the first time lobsters' little lives have been treated with a bit of compassion. Two years ago, Buddhist monks on P.E.I. bought hundreds of pounds of lobsters and released them back into the sea. 

"What more horrifying act can you imagine then taking a living creature, in your very own kitchen, and subjecting him or her to death by boiling?" asked Toronto lawyer Lesli Bisgould, who ran Canada's first animal rights practice.

Finally, she said, someone's talking about lobsters. 

Bisgould, who teaches animal law at the University of Toronto's faculty of law said the rules in Switzerland signal a shift in what kind of animal suffering we're willing to accept. 

Toronto lawyer Lesli Bisgould points to a long history of underestimating animal pain, and prefers people use the precautionary principle - erring on the side of caution. (pixabay.com)

She told Tremonti that when she started her practice about 25 years ago, she worked alone from an extra bedroom in her apartment. She said no one wanted to listen to her. 

"And now all of a sudden, like dominos, old established practices seem to be falling," she said. 

"We have over time dismissed animals as being unthinking machines because our science didn't know enough." 1:10

Bisgould argued while science may not be able to conclusively prove lobsters feel pain, what can be proven is they avoid painful stimuli.

And added that with lobsters having many brains and a nervous system, there are enough markers to provide a correlation to the experience of pain. 

​From an ethical perspective, she suggested why not err on the side of caution. 

"Why wouldn't we apply the precautionary principle. Why wouldn't we choose our actions that we know don't cause harm rather than actions that might?"

Adamo, however, warned that if animal rights were ever extended all the way down to insects, for instance, there would be a human health cost. She said it might become more difficult to spray for bed bugs and research mosquitoes that can carry malaria.

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by Halifax Network Producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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