Do Lobsters Feel Pain?
By Laura Gervais
Science & Environment Editor
Foodies of Dawson, I officially welcome you to lobster season! Spring is in the air -- after a winter that seems to have lasted ages -- and with this time of new beginnings, these scrumptious crustaceans arrive en masse in grocery stores.
It may surprise you to hear that lobster was not always considered the delicacy it is today. Before it was food fit for kings, it was peasant food — only fed to servants and prisoners. In the 17th century, lobsters were so abundant that they would wash up on shores in such large quantities, so they were not seen as rare or valuable. People of the time were mostly repulsed by them for their insect resemblance and their ecological status as bottom-dwellers. Back then, lobster was cooked after being dead for a few hours. This time interval between death and consumption allowed for digestive enzymes to seep through the meat and harmful bacteria to grow, making for a truly grotesque culinary experience.
Lobster only gained its recognition as a luxury in the 1950s, partly because it was one of the foods not rationed during the second World War. It became a good source of protein available to all. Before long, lobster became known for its exquisite taste (thanks to being properly cooked!) and evolved into the expensive treat it is now.
Many people are concerned about whether or not lobsters feel pain when they are boiled alive. If you have ever attempted at making a luxurious lobster dinner, you’ve probably heard a scream-like sound coming from the pot. This horrifying screech, however, is not the lobster crying out in pain. In fact, Robert C. Bayer, the executive director of The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, explains that it is “air that has been trapped in the stomach and forced through the mouth after being out of water for short periods of time.”
Some scientists argue that lobsters definitely do not feel pain. Joseph Ayers of Northeastern University claims that they “lack the brain anatomy needed to feel pain.” Lobsters, like insects, do not have brains, and according to the Lobster Institute, an organism must possess a complex nervous system for there to be any perception of pain. However, some say there is a possibility that they do suffer.
It’s been studied in the lab that crabs try to avoid electric shocks, which gives the impression that they must feel discomfort, if not pain. Jeff Shields, a marine biologist, explained that "it’s unclear whether the reaction to negative stimuli is a pain response or simply an avoidance response/” In other words, we just don’t yet know if crustaceans do indeed feel pain. It’s impossible to know what goes through a lobster’s “mind,” so more research must be conducted before coming to a firm conclusion.
In some countries — namely New Zealand and Switzerland — it is illegal to boil lobsters while they are still alive. Stunning a lobster before boiling it has been named a more humane way of ending its life. Making the boiling of lobsters illegal leaves some scientists stupefied, as the belief that these creatures lack the capacity to suffer is widespread. On the other hand, some say it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If any of you do have lobster sometime soon, try not to feel too remorseful! The odds that they do feel pain are low, but nonetheless they are present. So, before you drop the creature into a boiling pot of water, let it rest on ice for a few minutes. This will slow its simple nervous system which will in turn decrease the chances of it feeling pain, and then you can enjoy your bisque guilt-free.