Steamed and boiled alive: Sentience won’t save crabs

NOAA photo

Kathleen Stachowski  Other Nations

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. (If we can’t find a little humor, we’re doomed, right?)

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:

Queen’s said the findings…were consistent with observations of pain in mammals. However…in contrast to mammals, little protection is given to the millions of crustaceans that are used in the fishing and food industries each day.

“…the presumption is that they cannot experience pain. With vertebrates we are asked to err on the side of caution and I believe this is the approach to take with these crustaceans.” ~Prof. Bob Elwood

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 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.

9 Responses

  1. EXCELLENT post! I am SO thrilled to see you write about this atrocity.

    As a child I watched in horror as my dad dumped live crabs, clams, and lobsters into boiling water for his famous crab chippino. The screaming from the pot drove me out of the house crying. But I returned to eat the finished product, apathetic and glutenous. I shudder at this memory now.

    I live on the Northern CA coast and walk our beach almost everyday. It’s hard enough to witness crabs torn apart by seagulls but to consider that humans do basically the same thing is, well, inhumane. Even if one cares nothing about the suffering of these crustaceans, they should know that they are eating the vacuum cleaners of the oceans.

    Thank you for telling it like it is . . .

  2. Thank you for the recipes! We’re having steamed crabs tonight!

  3. Last week I came across an email I wrote two years ago — but never sent — to a teacher in a private Christian elementary school who took her first-graders on a field trip to a local grocery store to see lobsters in tanks.

    In my email, I pretended to be Libby the Lobster. Here’s a bit of what Libby wrote to the kids:

    My species has inhabited Earth since the Jurassic period (206 to 144 million years ago). That means my ancestors are 200 times as old as the human race.

    Would you like to know some interesting facts about us lobsters?

    ~ Like humans, our adults lead our young around by the hand — I mean the claw, excuse me! Yes, it’s true.
    ~ Like humans, we lobsters have a long childhood and an awkward adolescence.

    ~ Like humans, we lobsters carry our young for nine months.

    ~ Like humans, we lobsters can live beyond 100 years.

    ~ Like dolphins and many other animals, we lobsters use complicated signals to explore our surroundings and establish social relationships.

    ~ Like our friends the sea turtles and also like some migratory birds, we lobsters have a built-in magnetic compass that enables us to engage in true navigation. What that means is, we exhibit an extremely rare talent for orienting ourselves — in total underwater darkness on the ocean floor, mind you — without accessing physical landmarks or chemical cues.

    Using our built-in compass, my friends and I can journey hundreds of miles to reach our spawning grounds. In fact, just as a human can walk from Maine to Florida, we lobsters can take seasonal journeys of similar distance, assuming we manage to avoid the millions of traps set for us along the coasts. Sadly for us, most members of our species fall victim to the lobstering industry, which annually traps and removes, in the U.S. alone, some 3.5 million tons of us. (Notice that humans refer to us not as individuals but as objects measured by weight).

    ~ Like humans, we respond to threatening stimuli in just the same way humans and other animals do — by trying to escape the source of the pain. You see us flailing wildly when you dump us into a kettle of boiling water, don’t you? That means we are in agony, and are trying desperately to climb out of the scalding prisons in which we have been cruelly dumped.

    * * *

    Now I’m thinking it’s time to honor Libby’s fellow crustaceans, the world’s lobsters and crabs, by forwarding my two-year-old letter to the school’s headmistress, and asking her to share it with the 2011-2012 first-graders. They need to know that lobster moms and dads — and maybe crab parents, too — gently take their young by the claw to cross the ocean blue.

    If my letter results in no teacher in that school ever again taking their students on a field trip to visit captive crustaceans, it will have served its purpose.

    It was child abuse when my parents introduced me to the art of selecting, cooking, and eating crabs and lobsters. Today’s youngsters are being similarly abused. It’s my duty to point that out, nicely, or these children will grow up with stone-hard hearts, as I did, then, upon learning the truth, will be racked with guilt, as I was.

  4. This is a bit tardy, but I want to thank you both, Darris and BUA, for your heartfelt responses. AND for your ongoing advocacy for these sentient individuals. As for a field trip to see lobsters in a tank at a grocery store–that’s pathetic. One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

  5. In my pre-aware days I used to go to an all you can eat Chinese buffet just around the corner from my home. It was really quite a treat – Tons of food… In my mind I was really getting my money’s worth.

    Anyway, Friday nights the spread also included “crab legs”. Well, in an unlimited amount dozens and dozens of people (excluding me) would line up for their plate full… Back at the table it was all I could do to not cringe at the images surrounding me. The cracking and slurping sounds disgusted me even then. Now I know why.

    There were so many hundreds of moments of disconnect back then – I shuttered at the thought of eating crab legs but had no problem eating the chicken wing myself…

    Thanks for writing about these very magical sea creatures who really ought to be left in peace.

  6. Oh… And I almost forgot – Our appetite for crabs even has parts of Asia dispensing them from vending machines. Things just seem to go from bad to worse sometimes. 😦

  7. Bea, what disturbs me more than the Oriental consumers who buy the crabs from the vending machines (after all, they were brought up eating this “delicacy”) is the matter-of-fact tone of the Occidental reporter, who seems not at all troubled that live creatures are squeezed into tiny boxes and lined up in a machine and left to await their execution.

    The sardine-tight cases remind me of the “crush cages” in the horrid bear bile industry:

  8. Thank you so much for your passionate and heart full article. It is always comforting and hopeful to find persons who care .
    There is a petition regarding lobsters captive in tanks. Please sign it

  9. Thank you, Angela. I just posted your petition link at the Other Nations FB page:

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