A new rule in the UK intended to safeguard the welfare rights of animals regarded as sentient beings may forbid boiling lobsters alive. What does science have to say about the ethical minefield of crustacean misery and frying pots? Do lobsters feel pain? Are they sentient?
The UK government first submitted a measure to formally recognize animals as sentient beings back in May 2021. The bill’s multiple objectives included limiting the import of goods derived from trophy hunting, promoting more equitable confinement guidelines for agricultural animals, and prohibiting the keeping of primates as pets.
However, the bill only applied to vertebrates, such as octopuses, squid, insects, and crustaceans, and it did not provide any protections for non-vertebrates. According to The Times, ministers are getting ready to support an amendment to the UK Parliament’s House of Lords that would expand the law to include shellfish and cephalopod mollusks. According to the source, this involves a complete ban on boiling live lobsters.
Octopuses and lobsters were requested to be included in the animal sentience bill last month by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, whose supporters include the prime minister’s wife Carrie Johnson. They claimed that although these animals can experience pain, legal discrimination against them still exists because of their “different neural architecture” from that of humans.
But the research is a little murky in this area. According to certain research, lobsters avoid locations where they have been shocked, which is in line with a crucial standard for pain. This suggests that boiling a lobster alive would cause it to feel anguish similar to our own, and as a result, it may be considered unethical. (It should be noted that because they lack vocal cords, lobsters do not “scream” when placed in hot water. Air is leaving, hence the loud noise.)
It is unlikely that this argument, which has been going back and forth for decades, will ever be resolved. There does, however, seem to be a trend away from using this technique to prepare lobster. Switzerland, Norway, Austria, and New Zealand have already made it illegal to boil lobsters alive. For instance, in Switzerland, it is against the law to cook lobsters without first giving them an electric shock or “mechanical annihilation” of the brain. Additionally, lobsters must be transported in saltwater and not ice or freezing water.
Some imaginative eccentrics have tried to come up with considerably more inventive ways to handle the problem of cooking lobsters. In an effort to soothe the crustaceans before their bubbling end, a Maine restaurateur started experimenting with the concept of giving her lobsters cannabis before boiling them in 2018. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of cannabis, did slow down the animals’ movements when scientists recently tested this notion. However, the animals still reacted violently to hot water, indicating that their “pain” had not been attenuated.