October 1st, 2010
A MAN was sentenced last week, in Britain, to nine weeks jail for cooking a pet hamster in a microwave oven.
Undoubtedly this poor animal would have suffered a torturous death and I'm sure most people would agree that the sentence was well deserved.
Reading this news story, however, I was reminded of the common but similarly horrendous practice of boiling live crustaceans.
When plunged into boiling water lobsters react in much the same way as you or I would. They thrash around wildly and some try to cling on to the side of the pot. Others struggle so furiously their claws break off. They shake, tremble, struggle and writhe.
Even if the lid is placed on the pot, the rattling and clanking continues as the lobster whips himself around and tries to push it off.
Unlike the case in Britain, however, treating crustaceans this way is viewed as acceptable.
Is it because we've so often been assured that these frantic protests are nothing but 'reflex' responses?
Biologists frequently claim crustaceans are unable to feel pain because they have no backbones and limited nervous systems but Professor Robert Elwood, an expert in animal behaviour at Queen's University, Belfast, rejects this argument on evolutionary grounds.
He says that it is the ability to suffer that allows animals to learn from harmful experiences and thus avoid them in the future.
He says, too, that just because crustacean brains and nervous systems are different from those of vertebrates, such as humans, it doesn't mean they can't feel pain.
For example, lobsters are able to see even though they don't have a visual cortex like us. So it is highly probable they can feel pain despite lacking the corresponding brain construct found in humans.
To prove his theories, Elwood carried out various experiments.
In 2007, he dabbed acetic acid on to the antennae of 144 prawns. They reacted by rubbing the affected parts of their bodies for up to five minutes. The reaction, he said, was exactly the same as that seen in mammals exposed to painful irritants.
The prolonged, specifically directed rubbing and grooming was consistent with an interpretation of pain experience.
In 2009, he gave small electric shocks to hermit crabs. The crabs showed stress-related behaviours such as moving into new shells and grooming their abdomens after being shocked.
This could not be explained as a mere reflex action since the crabs showed both physical distress and behaviour change at the same time.
With less powerful shocks - below the threshold that forced them out - crabs remained in their shells but appeared to be waiting for an opportunity to move.
When a new shell was offered to them, they were more likely to switch homes than crabs who had not received a shock.
This showed that the crabs also retained a memory of the pain they had felt earlier.
These experiments clearly show that crustaceans are capable of feeling pain, so surely it's time the cruel practice of boiling them to death was made illegal.
Just as we recognise that microwaving a hamster is animal torture, isn't it time we recognised that this practice is animal torture too?