Boiling lobsters alive may be banned under a new law in the UK designed to protect the welfare rights of animals considered sentient beings. So, are lobsters sentient, do they feel pain, and what does science have to say about the moral quagmire of crustacean agony and cooking pots?
Back in May 2021, the UK government introduced a bill to formally recognize animals as sentient beings. Among the many facets of the bill, it aimed to limit the import of products from trophy hunting, push for fairer space requirements for farm animals, and stop people from owning primates as pets.
However, the bill only covered animals with a backbone and didn’t include any protections for non-vertebrates, which includes octopuses, squid, insects, and crustaceans. The Times reports that ministers are now preparing to back an amendment to the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK Parliament, to extend the legislation to shellfish and cephalopod mollusks. As per the report, this is likely to involve an outright ban on boiling lobsters alive.
Last month, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation — whose patrons include the prime minister’s wife Carrie Johnson — called for octopuses and lobsters to be included in the animal sentience bill. They argued that these animals are able to feel pain, but are discriminated against in legislation because their “neurological architecture differs from our own.”
The science on this issue, however, is a little hazy. Some studies have shown lobsters avoid areas where they’ve been shocked, which is consistent with a key criterion for pain. This indicates that a lobster being boiled alive would experience something comparable to our own concept of pain and, as such, it could be considered unethical. (It's worth noting lobsters don't "scream" when put in boiling water, they don't have vocal cords. That high-pitched noise is air escaping.)
On the other hand, some scientists have argued that lobsters possess an unsophisticated nervous system similar to that of an insect and lack the brain structures required to feel any “real” sense of suffering. This school of thought also contends that it’s impossible to tell whether a lobster’s reaction to sudden shock is a “true” pain response or just a basic reflex reaction.
This debate has been going backward and forwards for decades and is unlikely to be settled any time soon. However, there does appear to be a general move towards reconsidering this method of cooking lobster. The practice of boiling lobsters alive is already illegal in Switzerland, Norway, Austria, and New Zealand. In Switzerland, for example, the law states lobsters must be knocked out, either by electric shock or “mechanical destruction” of the brain, before boiling them. Lobsters also have to be transported in saltwater, not in ice or icy water.
Some inventive eccentrics have looked to deal with the issue of cooking lobsters with much more creative methods. In 2018, a Maine restaurateur began experimenting with the idea of giving her lobsters cannabis prior to cooking them, hoping to calm the crustaceans before their bubbly demise. Scientists recently tested out this theory and found that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, did slow down their movements, but they still instantly flinched at the sensation of hot water, indicating their "pain" was not subdued.