Lobsters to get a slightly less horrific death in Switzerland

CC BY 2.0 Illustration by James Sowerby (1793)

Live crustaceans will no longer be forced to lounge on ice or be thrust into boiling vats of water without being stunned first.

The title of David Foster Wallace’s famous book asks us to “Consider the Lobster” … much like M.F.K. Fisher asked us to "Consider the Oyster" before him. But more than just consider, I have long pitied the lobster. What a life. Kidnapped from their watery homes, stacked in miserable tanks with rubber bands around their hand-claws – or alternatively splayed out on freezing beds of ice – only to be thrust, fully awake, into boiling water where attempts to escape are met by the lid of a pot.

But for lobsters who end up in Switzerland, the deaths will be slightly less traumatic, thanks to new government rules that will go into effect on March 1.

Along with a more expansive overhaul of Swiss animal protection laws, “the practice of plunging live lobsters into boiling water, which is common in restaurants, is no longer permitted,” reports The Guardian. “Crustaceans must now be stunned before killing them.”

And life before the plunge will improve slightly as well. “Live crustaceans, including the lobster, may no longer be transported on ice or in ice water. Aquatic species must always be kept in their natural environment,” which, as Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodopoints out, is a bit confounding given that Switzerland is landlocked country. Regardless, now the lucky lobsters slated for delivery to the land of tall mountains will be treated to a dose of electric shock or the “mechanical destruction” of the brain before being boiled.

But I’m on the same page as Mandelbaum here, who asks, “have they really considered the lobster?”

People have been questioning whether or not lobsters (and other sea creatures) can feel pain for as long as we’ve been plunging them live into boiling water. And in fact, scientific evidence is mounting that fish do in fact feel some kind of pain … even if it is much more palatable for conscientious fish-eating humans to think otherwise.

So knocking them out beforehand may indeed be the more compassionate way to go – aside from the obvious completely compassionate way to go, which is of course, not eating them in the first place.

Mandelbaum notes that the Humane Society suggests that electrical stunning could be the best option; and he quotes Wallace when considering the mechanical-destruction-of-the-brain option:

But the problem with the knife method is basic biology: Lobsters’ nervous systems operate off not one but several ganglia, a.k.a. nerve bundles, which are sort of wired in series and distributed all along the lobster’s underside, from stem to stern. And disabling only the frontal ganglion does not normally result in quick death or unconsciousness.

It all serves as a reminder that, ironically, we really don’t know what it is to be humane, since we don’t know what it is to be anything other than human. We can compare numbers of nervous system cells and brain sizes to our own, but some of these creatures are so “other,” that those kinds of comparisons may be moot.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than with the octopus. (I always end up at the octopus.) Take the Korean dish of sannakji, in which the tentacles of a baby octopus are severed live, and continue to squirm as the eater revels in their … I don’t know, aliveness? While Anthony Bourdain was trying the dish in an episode of No Reservations, he said, "there is no cruelty issue here. [The octopus] is dead, it's just too dumb to know it's dead."

But in fact, octopuses are some of the brightest creatures on the planet, and can outdo humans in many skills. And those tentacles? Excuse me while I quote myself; from one of my many odes to the cephalopod:

Two-thirds of an octopus’ neurons do not reside in their head, rather, in their arms. Which is to say, an octopus’ arms can take on a variety of independent tasks while their owner is attending to other matters. And if one of those arms becomes detached, researchers have found that the severed arm can crawl away on its own and even grab hold of food and direct it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still attached.

So where does that leave the live octopus arm eater? And likewise, the boiler of lobsters? I whole-heartedly applaud the Swiss government’s recognition that animals can feel pain. Now it’s up to each of us to decide if an animal’s pain, in whatever form that might be, is worth our pleasure.

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