Friday, December 11, 2009


Longtime blog readers will remember that I'm a fan of David Foster Wallace. Last March, I bought a copy of his book of essays, "Consider the Lobster," at my erstwhile employer's annual used book sale.

Having as usual a considerable backlog of reading material, I've only just now finally gotten around to Considering the Lobster. The title essay was prompted by an event called the Maine Lobster Festival that evidently involves tourists chowing down on hundreds of pounds of crustaceans in a huge tent. Wallace wrote about the festival but eventually moved on to a more salient issue: Do lobsters, when being boiled, feel pain?

As a longtime voice for lobster liberation, I'm really into this topic. Wallace ultimately contends that we just can't be sure. Some people say lobsters don't have the neural development to feel pain like people or higher animals; others say they do, and anyway, how can we possibly know, without the power to project ourselves into a lobster's body in time to endure its final moments?

Wallace says a lobster's neurology lacks the ability to produce endorphins and other chemicals that mitigate pain in mammals. This could mean either that lobsters don't feel pain and thus never needed those chemicals, or that they feel even more pain than mammals would.

He also points out that lobsters do appear to struggle when they're boiled, clanking against the sides of the pot, and that marine researchers say they take up to 45 seconds to die in boiling water. The fact that they struggle seems to suggest pretty strongly that they're hurting, though some people argue their movements are involuntary and reflexive. (He also says quickly plunging a knife into their heads, a supposedly merciful method of killing them before boiling, doesn't completely disable their neural circuitry.)

He continues:

"In any event, at the (Maine Lobster Festival), standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World's Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they're unhappy, or frightened, even if it's some rudimentary version of these feelings...and again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who's helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in?"

Thus, in considering the lobster, I'm even more certain I don't want to eat one anytime soon. I eat chickens, I eat fish, I've even lately eaten beef and pork. But there's something about a lowly lobster that seems especially forlorn to me. I can't pretend that contradiction makes sense, but there it is.

(Photo: Lobster street art in the East Village, September 2008)


  1. Actually, I think the contradiction stems from the fact that lobsters are still alive when we buy them. I'm sure if chickens were sold alive in grocery stores, I wouldn't be eating them either.

  2. I've long pitied lobsters and crabs that get cooked live in boiling water. It does seem pretty cruel and extreme. Now I'm wondering about live oysters that are slurped down just moments after their shells are opened. I've been thinking a lot about death lately as we wait for death to come to Aunt Zelda, who has far exceeded anyone's expectations in remaining alive but unconscious.

  3. Poor lobsters. I can't eat lobster at all...weird's me out to see the poor buggers in the boring blue aquariums with rubber bands on their claws. Waiting to be put to the pot.

  4. modifier misplace alert! blue aquariums do not have rubber bands on their claws...

  5. I stopped eating lobsters when I saw a documentary --a lobsterman found a woman's dead body--with a group of lobsters feasting on it. Apparently they will eat anything. Food for thought.

  6. Yes indeed -- apparently they are the garbagemen of the sea!

  7. i think our emotional responses to animals - like reactions to the lobsters frantic struggling - are to be taken seriously. Steve did I ever recommend The Philosophers Dog by Raymond Gaita? I think you might like it.

  8. No, I've never heard of it. I'll check it out, though! Thanks, Lettuce!

  9. I can't bear to eat lobster. And yes, for me personally that's a hypocritical position, since I do eat poultry, fish, and occasionally pork and beef. I too would probably not be able to eat those things if I saw them alive moments before. I absented myself for "Slaughter Day" from the farm I lived on for a summer in my 20s...