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Scientific Review Proves That Lobsters Feel Pain
March 2006

A new report by Advocates for Animals, a Scottish animal protection organization, presents a wide array of scientific evidence that lobsters, like other animals, are capable of experiencing pain and suffering. The report arrays 15 years of available research showing that lobsters respond behaviorally as if they are in pain, have biological structures for mediating pain, and demonstrate mental cognitive processes such as learning, memory, association, and generalization--all of which would require that they have the brain capacity sufficient to feel pain. Some highlights of the report include the following:

-- Lobsters can attain a high degree of associative learning and can make distinctions about their environment. They can learn to associate certain chemical signals with punishments and others with rewards.

-- Lobsters have memories. They explore new environments but not ones that they've previously explored. They form stable social hierarchies, and they can remember and recognize individuals whom they have fought with in the past.

-- Lobsters can make generalizations. They can associate an individual odor with a mixture that contains it, perhaps using higher-order processing such as "configural discrimination," which means that they can discern that a combination is not the same thing as the sum of its parts.

-- Measurements of brain activity in the closely related crayfish show that their brains respond differently to interesting or irrelevant objects. Their brains also show "expectation," which in humans is considered to be a sign of higher mental processing, associated with conscious experiences.

-- Lobsters subjected to harmful events, such as electric shocks, respond similarly to the way that mammals react to pain. Experiments on crustaceans commonly assume that electric shocks are painful and use them as aversive stimuli.

-- The nervous systems of lobsters and crabs produce opioids, which in mammals are chemicals that mediate pain. They also possess opioid receptors, which appear to function the same way as in other animals. Studies in crabs show that their defensive reaction to electric shocks or to being struck is reduced by morphine, that this effect is dose-dependent, and that the effect can be counteracted by naloxone, an opioid antagonist, as is also the case in mammals. It is implausible that lobsters would have pain-mediating chemicals and receptors and respond to painkillers just as other animals do if they could not feel pain.

Advocates for Animals' report notes that lobsters do not receive humane consideration. They are typically cooked alive by boiling. Unattended traps result in death by starvation, dehydration, heat, or fights with other lobsters. During transportation and storage, they suffer from dehydration, red-tail bacterial disease, shell disease, and "bumper car" disease as a result of extremely crowded conditions. Rough handing of lobsters--including throwing them--causes open wounds and lesions. They also suffer from an inability to breathe properly in air, which results in acidosis and toxin buildup; conflict with other lobsters; sudden temperature changes; low water quality; and physical injuries. A Canadian study found that 19 percent of lobsters had a missing claw when they arrived at factories and packing stations. In Australia's Western rock lobster fishery, on average 20 percent of the lobsters arrive at the factory too weak to be considered fit for live export. Mortality rates often reach 10 to 15 percent.

With clear evidence that lobsters are sentient beings who suffer when they are mistreated, the only ethical conclusion is that every effort must be made to treat these animals humanely. Cruel practices that are common in the catching, handling, and killing of lobsters should be outlawed.

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