Lobsters, octopuses and crabs recognized as “sentient” in the UK

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Lobsters and other shellfish served in restaurants are often boiled alive — an excruciating process carried out because once the lobster is dead it releases a lot of toxic bacteria. Cooking the lobster alive therefore minimizes the chance of food poisoning. Besides, lobsters don’t have a brain and can’t feel pain, right?

Wrong. A massive review of over 300 previously published studies found there is strong evidence that at least some invertebrates are sentient. On the heels of these findings, the UK government officially updated an animal welfare law recognizing decapods and cephalopods — which include crabs, lobsters, shrimp, prawns, and crayfish, as well as octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish — as capable of “sentience”.

Sentience refers to “the capacity to have feelings, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort, and excitement.” Previously, the British animal welfare bill already recognized all animals with a backbone as sentient beings.

Sentience is not exactly the same as consciousness, but the two are closely related because feelings represent the most basic sense of “conscious”. For instance, studies show that lobsters become highly stressed during the catching, handling, and transport phases, arriving either very weak or dying at factories. Both decapods like lobsters and cephalopods like octopuses show they can not only feel pain but remember painful or threatening objects or situations and take steps to avoid them.

Although lobsters and other decapods don’t have a brain, at least not in the familiar human-like sense, they do have a complex nervous system that includes nociceptive receptors that signal pain and opioid receptors that respond to morphine.

These latest updates to UK legislation, however, will not affect any current practices in the fishing and restaurant industries — not yet at least. It is very likely that inhuman slaughtering and catching practices for these animals will be eventually banned. Some of the recommendations in the review for animal welfare protection policies in the future include banning the declawing of crabs and inhumane slaughtering methods like live boiling and dismemberment.

Banning these inhumane practices wouldn’t be a premiere — boiling crustaceans alive is illegal in countries like Switzerland and New Zealand.

“The amendment will also help remove a major inconsistency: octopuses and other cephalopods have been protected in science for years, but have not received any protection outside science until now. One way the UK can lead on animal welfare is by protecting these invertebrate animals that humans have often completely disregarded,” said Dr. Jonathan Birth, Associate Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and lead author of the government-commissioned independent review.

“The Animal Welfare Sentience Bill provides a crucial assurance that animal wellbeing is rightly considered when developing new laws. The science is now clear that crustaceans and mollusks can feel pain and therefore it is only right they are covered by this vital piece of legislation,” said Animal Welfare Minister Lord Goldsmith.

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