Tag Archives: UK Animal Welfare Bill

Opinion: Making sense of sentience

With a draft UK Animal Welfare Bill looking to put the concept of ‘animal sentience”directly into law and an ongoing debate about the levels of pain different species might experience, psychologist Stuart Derbyshire asks if we are really observing pain in some animals or some other reaction.

Recently, the government of Switzerland ordered that lobsters should no longer be dropped alive into boiling water in case the lobster feels pain. Much of the evidence that lobsters might feel pain is extrapolated from observations of other crustaceans, such as hermit crabs, which avoid areas where they previously received electrical shocks, and will leave a protective, sheltered, area when shocked. It is also noted that lobsters and other crustaceans will move away from intense heat.

Still, how much of a ‘pain’ experience can we expect a lobster to have with such a sparse nervous system?  The avoidant behaviour of crustaceans is certainly consistent with an experience of pain. Locusts, for example, have been observed to continue munching on vegetation even while they are themselves being eaten, which is much less consistent with pain experience. Avoidant behaviour, however, is far from demonstrating an experience of pain. Even the humble fruit fly drosophila (otherwise known as a maggot) will bend and roll away if you light a naked flame next to it.

The lobster beats the maggot because it does have a more sophisticated nervous system involving centralized bundled nerve endings known as ganglia. Arguably those centralized bundled nerve endings can be called a brain, but that brain is notably puny – about the size of a grasshopper brain. Based on that, it seems unlikely that the lobster will be capable of much experience that we could relate to as common.

Nevertheless, lobsters do have an opioid system, which regulates pain in humans. Morphine is the compound that mimics our natural opioids and morphine is a powerful painkiller. Injecting morphine into crabs makes them less responsive to electrical shock, and less likely to emerge from a protective shelter. To my knowledge, nobody has tried injecting lobsters with morphine, but I would expect that such injections would make the lobster similarly less likely to move away from intense heat. Continue reading