Guest blog – Are Lobsters animals? by Maisie Tomlinson

Maisie is the Campaign Director and co-founder of Crustacean Compassion.  She has previously worked at World Animal Protection, where she successfully co-coordinated the EU Supporting Better Dairy campaign in coalition with Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream and Compassion in World Farming, for whom she is also a school speaker. She is currently a Sociology PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, investigating socio-cultural understandings of animal subjectivity amongst animal behaviour professionals from divergent disciplines.


At Crustacean Compassion, we call ourselves an animal welfare organisation – the only UK organisation dedicated solely to the protection of decapod crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, crayfish and their kind. We believe it’s unfair, unscientific and legally inconsistent that they are excluded from animal welfare legislation, and our campaign starts squarely with a petition to include them in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales).

But what is an ‘animal’ anyway? A scholarly response will usually start with an acknowledgement of humans as one animal amongst many; before taking a contentious turn into ‘whatever a human thinks it’s not’; getting blurred vision when you’ve mapped the human genome; and only brief respite when you’ve defined such categories as meaningless reflections of an outdated anthropocentrism. So you’ll be glad to hear I’ll skip all that and go straight to the legalese. Under (nonhuman) animal welfare law, the definition tells us only who we have moral duties to; and in the case of the UK’s various Animal Welfare Acts, we have duties to those capable of being harmed by our actions. In other words, both vertebrates AND invertebrates for whom “there is evidence that they are capable of feeling pain and suffering”.

So it’s puzzling, therefore, that in spite of compelling scientific evidence that decapod crustaceans experience pain (and even, in some cases, emotional anxiety), they still remain outside most legal definitions of ‘animal’ in UK welfare law. An EU panel claimed as far back as 2005 that many of the ways in which decapods are currently treated in the food industry are inhumane. Boiling alive, for instance, can take a lobster up to three minutes to die. Chilling it beforehand might merely induce paralysis rather than oblivion. Not long ago, a UK supermarket was found to be shrink-wrapping live crabs in plastic packaging. Yet in the UK both practices remain entirely legal.

Not so in other countries. This week, a Sydney fishmonger was convicted of animal cruelty to  lobsters for hacking off their tails with a band-saw while still alive. Decapod crustaceans have been protected under animal welfare laws in several Australian states for decades; also in New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland. International guidelines for humane treatment recommend the use of an electrical stunner at  slaughter (Waitrose, Tescos, Whole Foods and some UK restaurants already voluntarily do this). Chefs must undergo special training in mechanical slaughter with a knife (their biologies require special skills). Enough food and a suitable environment. It’s not hard.

So why don’t they receive such basic protections here? One might well ask. Our Freedom of Information request revealed that despite widespread media coverage when evidence of their sentience was released, NO assessment has been either conducted by DEFRA into the ability of decapod crustaceans to feel pain. At least not since the introduction of the Animal Welfare Bill (England and Wales) in 2005, when the minister was criticised by the Select Committee chair for insufficiently interrogating the science when excluding them. Recognising that they were on thin ground, however, they inserted a clause into the Act, specifically to acknowledge that invertebrates could later be included under the definition of ‘animal’ if the relevant evidence became available.

At Crustacean Compassion, we believe that time has now come. Just a few months after the Act became law, an EU panel declared them as “Category One” (pain-feeling) animals. And in 2012 and 2016, the strongest evidence yet came from a team at the University of Belfast. Whilst it is never possible to prove with 100% certainty what any animal is feeling, a series of behavioural experiments showed that crustaceans appeared to lay down memories of a painful stimulus and to weigh up the risks and benefits of avoiding it, behaviour the authors claimed was consistent with an experience of pain, rather than a mere ‘reflex response’. Certainly enough, one would think, to give one the benefit of the doubt if you’re about to plunge it in boiling water.

And yet the government still insists that there is a lack of ‘conclusive’ evidence on the issue; forgetting that it hasn’t actually assessed the evidence, and failing to understand that if conclusive evidence was a precondition, NO animal would be included in the Act!

At Crustacean Compassion, we believe that the time has come to protect these sensitive and captivating creatures by protecting them under animal welfare law. We’re starting with England and Wales. Please help us by signing our petition to include them in the definition of ‘animal’; and don’t forget to share. Thank you.



Elwood, R., and Magee, B., (2013) “Shock avoidance by discrimination learning in the shore crab (Carcinus maenas) is consistent with a key criterion for pain”, Journal of Experimental Biology, vol 216: 353-358

Appel, M & Elwood, R (2009), ‘Motivational trade-offs and potential pain experience in hermit crabs’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol 119, no. 1-2, pp. 120-124

Magee, B., & Elwood, R. W. (2016). Trade-offs between predator avoidance and electric shock avoidance in hermit crabs demonstrate a non-reflexive response to noxious stimuli consistent with prediction of pain. Behavioural Processes, 130, 31-35.

Fossat, P., Bacqué-Cazenave, J., De Deurwaerdère, P., Delbecque, J.-P. and Cattaert, D. (2014). Anxiety-like behavior in crayfish is controlled by serotonin. Science 344, 1293-1297




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13 Replies to “Guest blog – Are Lobsters animals? by Maisie Tomlinson”

  1. Thanks, Maisie, for a really interesting and thought-provoking piece.
    Almost every week we learn of new research highlighting the sophistication of non-human nervous systems. Many people resist or reject the implications of these findings, probably for two main reasons:
    Firstly, they remind us that the 'gap' between ourselves and other organisms is not as wide or deep as we like to think it is.
    Secondly, they challenge the way we have treated, and continue to treat, other animals in our food production and recreation.

    I fully realise that the world is a tough place, but we should at least be mindful and well informed about the things we do.

  2. I struggle with issues like this, not least because I'm aware of my own vested interests as an occasional seafood eater. Always happy to have my thoughts provoked though.

    For me many animal welfare issues are complicated by the inherent but unspoken subtext that we are not part of nature. If we cause a lobster pain that is something for which we are told we are culpable, something we shouldn't do - something unnatural. But if an otter, say, eats a lobster alive that's natural and OK. Because we're somehow different? If the difference is conciousness where does that leave dolphins or indeed chimpanzees - as serial killers?

    Unpacking that apartness has implications I'm less comfortable with, in that it makes the all too commonly asserted common separation between our (overriding) interests and those of the (apparently less important) natural world seem more acceptable, a viewpoint I strongly disagree with both morally and practically.

    I can see merit both in the argument that we should not inflict pain on other species, because we no longer need to, and in the argument that we've been hunters as well as gatherers for the entire course of our existence and that that connection to the natural world is an essential component of who we are - a link that we forget at our peril. A culture that does not regard us as part of the natural world doesn't only justify habitat destruction and our psychological disconnection from nature, but perversely it's also why people who would never hurt an actual live chicken will cheerfully buy factory farmed chicken as long as it is cut up and anonymously shrink wrapped.

    I've sort of arrived at not eating anything I wouldn't be willing to kill myself, and be willing take responsibility for that killing. And yes, I have killed birds, rabbits, a deer (mercy killing of a road casualty but I did it) and crustaceans.

    1. I also enjoyed your comment, Jbc, but my take on these issues is a bit different. I guess the main difference is that the fact that we have eaten animals throughout our evolution (and I still do) is only a miniscule fraction of what connects and binds me to the rest of the natural world. Everything I have seen and learned in my career as a biologist - the similarities in our DNA, biochemistry, cell, tissue and organ structure and parallels in our behaviours to name just a few - screams to me that we are fully paid-up members of the animal kingdom. And the recent research just pulls us in even tighter - many of the properties that we used to regard as uniquely human (learning, intelligence, communication, tool use, even some emotional responses) are shared with other, sometimes surprising, groups of animals. If I were (and had always been) vegan and had never killed anything, I don't think it would make me feel any less a part of nature, although it might fractionally reduce my level of empathy with some aspects of the small minority of species that are large predators.

      Most of us are involved, directly or indirectly, in the killing of animals, and that would be very difficult to change. But good first steps would be not to do it flippantly or for fun, not to cause suffering that can be easily avoided, and not to hide behind lazy smokescreens of the 'don't worry, they can't feel anything' sort, which we now know are simply not true. Having read many of your comments, I'm not suggesting for one second that you would do any of these things, but it's interesting how we all come at things from different angles.

    2. Interesting comments, Jbc, and I agree with much of what you say. I think that there are two separate questions relating to eating animals. The first is should we eat animals at all? For some people the answer is a definite no - we can meet our dietary requirements without killing other animals so the moral position is to eschew eating meat at all. I personally do eat meat and justify it to myself along the lines that you have outlined.
      The second question relates to how our meat (in the broad sense, including all animal protein) is produced. We have (probably uniquely amongst all animal species) the capacity to understand that other animals might experience pain and suffering as a result of our treatment of them and if we are going to eat meat we surely have an ethical responsibility to limit this suffering as much as we can. We can eat a lobster but it behoves us to kill it in a humane way. In respect of this second question it really is appropriate for us to highlight our apartness from the rest of the animal kingdom; the cat may play with a mouse before killing it but we cannot use that to justify cruelty on our own part.

  3. My grandmother used to boil crabs on a market stall.
    I remember as a child, being told how much she hated the squeeling. Work was hard to come by in the 20s,so she had little choice.
    Hopefully this campaign will meet with success.

    1. Yes, thank you, Maisie - it's about time these poor creatures were viewed with compassion and respect.
      I shall pass the petition on to our members.

  4. "Chefs must undergo special training"

    This will become ever more essential as we rely increasingly upon arthropods for our food. Locust abattoirs in particular will find recruitment challenging

  5. Fish, reptiles and amphibians likewise are not protected by the UK Animal Welfare Act. Fish which are caught by trawlers die by suffocation or eviceration which is pretty barbaric ! I believe some farmed fish are killed humanely when harvested and there is no reason apart from inconvenience for these methods not to be used at sea on trawlers.

  6. Thank you Maisie - I have avoided eating crabs and lobsters for some time as I find their treatment and the methods of killing them upsetting. I hope that your petition achieves its aim - I've duly signed and shared.

  7. Thankyou for raising this important issue, Maisie and for the work your organisation is doing to protect these animals. It is heartening the amount of research which is revealing how like humans other species are. More the reason why we should respect the other beings who share the planet with us.


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