LUKE BURBANK, host:
All right. I don't know if everyone is obsessed with "Simpsons" as I am. The answer is probably no. But maybe you remember this episode. Homer buys this lobster and his plan is to fatten it up and eat it. But then, he names the lobster Pinchy, and it becomes his best friend, and then he accidentally cooks him and then eats him very sadly.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Simpsons")
HOMER: Oh, no more pain where you are now, boy.
(Soundbite of slurping)
HOMER: Oh, God, that's tasty. I wish Pinchy were here to enjoy this.
(Soundbite of crying)
BURBANK: Well, according to a new study, Homer's guilt may have been well-placed. It finds that lobsters do feel pain. This has been a long-running debate. The latest study is just out from Queens University in Belfast, Ireland. It offers compelling data that crustaceans can, in fact, experience pain or at least some kind of discomfort.
Joining us is Professor Robert Elwood. He's an animal behaviorist who coauthored the study.
Hi there, professor.
Professor ROBERT ELWOOD (Animal Behavior, Queen's University): Good morning.
BURBANK: So can you clarify exactly how did you decide or how did you test if lobsters and if crustaceans could feel pain?
Prof. ELWOOD: This was our first experiment to look at pain in crustacea. What we did was to pretreat one antenna of a prawn, not a lobster…
Prof. ELWOOD: …with either water or a local anesthetic. And then, we applied after that either caustic soda or acidic acid or just sea water. What we found was that the chemicals produced a huge response in terms of rubbing the antenna, specifically the antenna that was treated against the side of the tank and also pulling it through the claws of the prawn.
But if had been pretreated with a local anesthetic, it had the expected effect of reducing those responses. So we concluded that the data were entirely consistent with the idea of pain. They fitted all those criteria that we set up in this experiment.
What it doesn't do is to prove conclusively that these animals do experience pain in the way that we do. However, if I can carry on…
Prof. ELWOOD: …there are - we have been doing other experiments of a different nature, which are also consistent with the idea that these animals perceive pain. And we are coming to conclusion that there's a very, very high probability that they do.
BURBANK: So you sort of put irritant on certain parts of a prawn, and when you had first precoated that part of the prawn with an anesthetic, the prawn didn't seem to react as negatively as when the thing was put on to sort of, you know, untreated part of the prawn's body.
How is it then that there have been other studies that have come out that said crustaceans don't feel pain? This seems like the first thing I would do if I was trying to find out if they feel pain. This seems like a pretty open-and-shut case.
Prof. ELWOOD: Well, there have been some other studies. There have been studies looking at opiod receptors and avoidance learning, and they are also consistent with the idea that they perceive pain. And we are pursuing some lines on that. I think most people that say they don't feel pain haven't actually done the research. They are just using sort of arguments.
And I've heard people say that these animals don't have brains, for example, which is nonsense. They have brains, although not very well-organized nervous system. They have a little sensory apparatus necessary for perception of various stimuli. But because they're built on a different plan, if you like, to vertebrates, people say they can't do things that vertebrates do, such as feel pain. But they can see and they can walk and they can do all sorts of things that vertebrates can do with the nervous system they have.
BURBANK: It seems that from just an evolutionary standpoint, you wouldn't get very far as a species if you couldn't feel pain.
Prof. ELWOOD: That's right. When I talk to my students, they're very surprised at that. They view pain as a tremendous nuisance. But logically, if you cannot feel pain, you can't learn to avoid those situations that give you pain. And so it's extremely useful in very, very rapid learning to avoid certain situations. And I would expect the phenomenon to be widespread in the animal kingdom.
BURBANK: How did you get interested in studying crustaceans, which people think as sort of insects of the sea and being, you know, almost nonsentient?
Prof. ELWOOD: Oh. Whoa, way back when I was an undergraduate, I saw hermit crabs for the first time and I just thought they were fascinating animals. I didn't study those for my Ph.D., but I took up a hobby (unintelligible) of studying hermit crabs and other crustacean and dropped my main work. And now, pretty well 100 percent is on crustacea. But how I got into this is I met a well-known TV chef who I discussed animal behavior and crabs, et cetera. And he simply asked, do they feel pain? And I took up the challenge to pursue that line of research.
BURBANK: Well, I'm going to have to ask you a possibly painful question for you. Do you still eat prawns and lobster?
Prof. ELWOOD: Yeah. I have to confess I had prawns two days ago.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BURBANK: What? You're - wait. You go to work all day. You put irritant on their tentacles or their receptor and then you go home at night and saute them up?
Prof. ELWOOD: No, not the prawns I actually use.
BURBANK: Okay. That's good.
Prof. ELWOOD: These were commercial prawns. It's like anything. I would expect my steak, when I get it, to come from an animal that's led a good healthy life and has been treated humanely at slaughter. And I'm coming around to the view that perhaps those rights should be afforded to the higher crustacea.
BURBANK: So I guess your hope in this, it sounds like, is that not to sort of ban the eating of these animals as much as just to say when they're being -when their life is being ended, let's take into consideration that they actually can feel pain.
Prof. ELWOOD: That's right. I've seen films on - let's say - YouTube, which is a…
BURBANK: Believe me, it's where most of our research happens for this program.
Prof. ELWOOD: Well, great. Well, it was a little bit new to me, but - they, if you put in terms like lobster, prawns, cooking, you can find the most extraordinary things of live prawns being cooked in a wok and they're jumping around. You can see pictures of live lobsters with the abdomen cut off, the animal is still moving on the plate. But the raw flesh is being eaten. And prawns impaled on sticks live and then put in dips and eaten. I mean, these are extraordinary events if you then attribute some ability to acute discomfort or pain.
BURBANK: Mm-hmm. Robert Elwood, professor of animal behavior at Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland. He coauthored a new study on crustaceans and pain. It's published in the Journal of Animal Behaviour.
Thank you very much for talking to us and kind of opening my eyes a little bit on this.
Prof. ELWOOD: Well, thank you very much.