How To Kill a Lobster Humanely


Photo by Simon Goldenberg/Flickr CC

Americans worried about European-style big government have something new to fear: the police arresting you for cooking. In particular, cooking crabs and lobsters. Seriously.

In March of this year, a scientific team in the UK released a report indicating, through the use of some novel experiments, that crabs may well feel pain. The study overturned decades of claims that crustaceans can't feel much at all, and garnered worldwide attention. Now, in this week's edition of New Scientist, a researcher in the UK named Peter Fraser, who uses crabs in his experiments, has fought back, writing that crabs feeling pain is about as likely as crabs being able to enjoy a good opera.

So the debate continues, except that, astonishingly, Mr. Fraser may turn out to be on the wrong side. I wouldn't be surprised if there are chefs out there who play opera for their lobsters to ease their final moments. And I can tell you for certain that there is a small army of animal-rights activists in Europe lobbying for new laws for crabs, lobsters, crayfish, and other invertebrates. The idea is to give these charming underwater bugs the same legal protections against cruelty already afforded to pigs, cows, and other mammals. Which, for starters, would mean not boiling them alive.

With or without a law, it would actually make perfect sense to try to minimize the suffering of crustaceans when we prepare them for cooking.

If this sounds crazy, consider the fact that New Zealand has already included crustaceans in its animal protection laws, and that in 2005, the Italian town of Reggio Emilia banned the boiling of lobsters. That same year, the Scottish group Advocates for Animals released a convincing report arguing that invertebrates possess much of the neural circuitry to process pain. A UK group called the Shellfish Network has been a tireless proponent of crustacean rights, and given the mounting evidence and changing attitudes, European parliaments seem at least willing to consider such laws at the national level. The crab report this March has provided additional ammunition. People like Mr. Fraser are nervous.

If Europe does eventually adopt crustacean-rights legislation, the US will have a hard time avoiding the issue. So what's a cook to do -- prepare for a future of boiling lobsters and crabs in the utmost secrecy, with the doors locked and the shades drawn? For most people, dispatching live animals in the kitchen is traumatic enough as it is, without the fear of landing in jail.

But therein lies the crux of the matter. After all, we are killing animals to eat them. Those pigs, cows, and other mammals who already have legal protections are also getting killed to eat, and the laws, however imperfect, are there simply to reduce unnecessary suffering in the process. Even with further advances in science, we may never know precisely what crustaceans feel. But it doesn't take much of a leap to imagine that being boiled alive isn't pleasant, and that's exactly why we're squeamish. In a way, it's strange that our basic laws against animal cruelty don't already include crustaceans.

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Trevor Corson is author of the worldwide pop-science bestseller The Secret Life of Lobsters and the highly acclaimed The Story of Sushi. His website is More

Trevor Corson is the author of the worldwide pop-science bestseller The Secret Life of Lobsters and the highly acclaimed The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice.

He spent two years studying philosophy in China, another three years in Japan living in temples and studying Buddhism, and two more years working as a commercial lobsterman off the Maine coast.

He has been an award-winning magazine editor and has written about food, religion, foreign affairs, and a wide variety of other topics for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Atlantic, where The Secret Life of Lobsters began as an essay that was included in The Best American Science Writing.

As one of the leading authorities on sushi in the West, Trevor serves as the only "Sushi Concierge" in the United States, hosting dinner classes in New York and Washington D.C. and educational dining events for organizations, corporations, and private groups. He is also a consultant to sushi restaurants, working to bring a more authentic Japanese experience to Western diners.

Trevor is a frequent public speaker and his work has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, ABC World News with Charles Gibson, NPR's All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation, as well as numerous local television and radio programs; he also appears as a judge on the Food Network's hit TV show Iron Chef America. His website is

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