The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

CNHI News Service Originals

March 12, 2014

If you were a crustacean, would you feel pain?

A scientist and a seafood chef walk into a bar. "We have a mutual interest," says the scientist. "I study crustaceans and you cook them." But the chef wanted to know just one thing: Do the animals feel pain?

Robert Elwood had been working with crabs and prawns for the better part of three decades when Rick Stein confronted him with this question in a pub on the coast of Northern Ireland. Elwood was stumped. "It was the first time I ever considered the question," he says.

Although some people are horrified by the idea of cooking lobsters alive or the practice of tearing claws from live crabs before tossing them back into the sea, such views are based on a hunch. We know very little about whether these animals - or invertebrates in general - actually suffer. In Elwood's experience, researchers are either certain the animals feel pain or certain they don't. "Very few people say we need to know," he says.

The global food industry farms or catches billions of invertebrates every year. But unlike their vertebrate cousins, they have virtually no legal protection. "Early on in my career I realized that when the law speaks of animals, it does not mean invertebrates," says Antoine Goetschel, an international animal law and ethics consultant based in Zurich. "As long as the common opinion is that invertebrates do not suffer, they are out of the game."

Pain is an awkward thing to test. It can't be measured directly or pointed at; it's not even easy to define. How can we tell when an animal is suffering? We have come a long way since Descartes, who argued that all non-human animals were merely automata, without self-awareness and incapable of feeling. But much of what we think we know still involves a lot of guesswork.

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