Steamed and boiled alive: Sentience won’t save crabs

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I’m steamed. Simmering. Approaching a boil. Turning red. Feeling crabby as all get-out.

Over what, you ask? Over crabs. Yeah, those funky, scuttling crustaceans. Not that I ever felt much affinity for crabs. They and their brethren seemed so alien–so lacking in mammalian familiarity (claws! shells! eye stalks!)–that it was hard to muster much of a connection. But that was then.

I’ve never eaten a crab in any form. In my pre-vegetarian days (they ended in ’85), I found the mere idea of eating fish and sea creatures revolting based on smell and weirdness alone. Nowadays, I’m revolted by the idea of eating any creature based on their will to live, their suffering, their sentience. Who am I to deprive them of their lives?

So there I was, lying in bed reading the AARP magazine the other night, eyelids drooping heavier by the minute. I paged past the Aretha Franklin interview (doesn’t she wear fur???); “Four Surgeries to Avoid” (just four? I hope to avoid ALL of ’em!); baby boomers who ride motorcycles (far out–cue up Steppenwolf!), and so on: the president’s upcoming 50th birthday, three decades of AIDS, then…boom! I was blindsided by cruelty-as-usual when I least expected it.

The article was “Eating Well: To Catch a Crab” (different title, online version). A series of little line drawings (print version only) tells me how to “pick” a blue crab: “1) Pull off legs. Pop tab on underbelly. 2) Pry off top shell. Remove porous lungs. 3) Snap body in half. Pick out meat.” I foundered at “pull off legs.” Right from the get-go.

Now fully awake, I spied the recipe: “Pour equal parts flat beer and white vinegar in a big pot with a steaming rack, then put live–always live–crabs layered with Old Bay above the rack. Top with a tight-fitting lid. Heat to steam. ” Yeah, I’m steamin’ by now, too. First off, what a helluva thing to do to a perfectly good beer.

Seriously though. I rubbed my eyes, thought maybe I’d drifted off and dreamt the whole sorry thing, but there it was, live crabs, “always live.” It took quite a while to fall asleep that night.

Crabs, like humans, are sentient. They have eyes, they see their world. They have a nervous system and a brain. A study out of Queen’s University (Ireland) found that crabs not only feel pain, but retain a memory of it. BBC News reports:

On the other hand, it will come as no surprise that a website dedicated to the role of animal research in medical science first touts crustaceans’ usefulness as biological research models, next cites their importance to food economies, and then references a Norwegian report concluding that, “…there is little knowledge about the capacity for sentience in crustaceans and that their nervous and sensory systems appear to be less developed than those of insects. While lobsters and crabs have some capacity for learning, it is unlikely that they can feel pain.”

Judge for yourself. “In his book Animal Liberation Peter Singer suggests two criteria which should be considered when attempting to ascertain if any animal is capable of suffering: ‘…the behaviour of the being, whether it writhes, utters cries, attempts to escape from the source of pain, and so on; and the similarity of the nervous system of the being to our own.’ ” ~from Sentience in Crustaceans at Think Differently About Sheep

Time to get down to brass tacks. But let me warn you, this is where things get extremely bizarre–as in, boiling crabs alive, on camera, to prove that they’re sentient. And why would anyone want to do that? Why, as a great selling point for Crustastun, “the world’s only compassionate stunning system for crabs and lobsters”! (Available in single stunner and batch stunner models.)

“Sentient behaviour of shore crabs being boiled – University of Bristol (UK),” the video is titled. “Research carried out by the University of Bristol has highlighted how long it can take for crabs to die when subjected to the gradual heating method, advocated by some chefs. The animals in the video(update: video seems to have been removed from website?! Here’s a substitute–rather gruesome at times, but the boiling pot is absent) do not die until their core body temperature reaches 34°C, which takes over six minutes.” (For the Celsius-impaired, 34 C equals 93 F.) Prepare yourself, Gentle Reader, for the writhing and frantic efforts to escape. Especially poignant is one crab’s attempt to hook his/her legs over the lip of the pot.

“Humane slaughter” is considered an oxymoron by those of us opposed to any slaughter. Yet the Crustastun is one more human endeavor that allows our species to maintain–with a pat on the back for our exceptional humanity–a status quo built on the institutional exploitation of other (read: lesser)species. Because animals can’t possibly value their lives the way humans do, once we’re off the hook for their suffering, we’re home free.

This post first appeared at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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