Can Lobsters Feel Pain?

It is the moment of truth for almost every lobster lover -- turning a living, primitive creature into dinner.

But the question remains: Do lobsters feel pain? Animal-rights advocates say yes, though some scientists say the notion is nonsense. And the battle for what's on your dinner plate is caught between them.

"Scientists have studied them enough to prove that they do feel pain," said Karin Robertson of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. "They're very sensitive animals. And they're boiled alive, something we'd never consider doing to a dog or a cat or a cow or a pig. But many people do it to lobsters without thinking."

Robertson said people should stop eating lobsters altogether. "When they're being boiled, they're thrashing around, they're trying to get out of the pot, and nobody who's seen that could honestly say that they don't feel pain," she said.

But Harvard neurobiologist Edward Kravitz called PETA's science "bogus."

Kravitz said diners shouldn't confuse the involuntary, uncoordinated response to heat with human anguish, and he doesn't think it's inhumane to dump living lobsters into a pot of boiling water.

"Much of the thrashing around that you see when you put the animal [into the pot] is a reflex contraction of muscle," he said, adding, "I think the brain will be dead in seconds, and therefore even if the animal can feel pain, its ability to perceive the pain will be gone in seconds."

Lobster Empathy vs. Lobster Industry

Still, PETA's Fish Empathy Project has embarked on a campaign to make us think about what we eat. And its efforts have yielded some results. Last month upscale grocer Whole Foods stopped carrying live lobsters out of concern for their "quality of life" in overcrowded tanks. But they're still selling frozen lobsters, which suggests the save-the-lobster lobby isn't out of deep water yet.

The idea that a nation of flesh-eaters should give up surf as well as turf has rankled the scales of those who make their living from lobsters. New England lobsterman Laddie Dexter has been setting his traps for several decades, and he said the protesters don't know what they're talking about.

"They just don't understand the nature of the animal they're dealing with, you know?" Dexter said. "I've never had a lobster wave to me. I've never had one talk to me."

New England lobstermen from Maine to Montauk, New York's largest port, note that their catch is not endangered and the industry is carefully monitored to prevent overfishing.

And lobster on the menu is an annual rite of summer -- just ask Sima Freierman, dock manager at Montauk's Inlet Seafood cooperative.

"It's everyone's prerogative to not eat what they don't want to eat," Freierman said. "It's not their prerogative to deny other people a healthy source of food."

'Such an Easy Thing'

Freierman said she is not worried that PETA might have the same effect on the lobster industry as it did when it went after furs and harmed that industry's business.

"I'm not concerned," she said. "And I do draw the line. I do see a difference between fashion and food, I absolutely do. It's not a political statement. We're feeding people."

Those in the industry call lobster the ultimate fresh food, harvested from the sea as a healthful part of the American diet. Over the past decade or so, nearly 90 million pounds a year have been caught.

But PETA would like to see lobsters -- and all animal flesh -- off the table, permanently.

"If we can choose 50 different options at our favorite restaurant, why not choose something that's vegetarian?" Robertson said. "Why not save the life of a couple of animals just by pointing to a different option? It's such an easy thing."

Try telling that to someone dipping a hunk of sweet lobster meat into a cup of melted butter.