Eating seafood immoral? Octopuses, squid, crabs have emotions and feel pain, study says

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TORONTO — Prepare to feel especially guilty the next time you order seafood. Researchers from York University argue that octopuses, crabs, lobsters, crayfish, and other invertebrates are indeed sentient and can feel pain, anger, fear, and happiness. The vast majority of countries do not recognize invertebrates as sentient, but the United Kingdom is already mulling changes to its animal welfare legislation that would change this.

Previous studies have shown that octopuses are very smart and socially sharp creatures. They’re even capable of completing puzzles that would give some humans pause and can recognize other organisms they’ve interacted with before. If universally agreed upon, the conclusion that invertebrates feel emotions will almost certainly hold moral implications for millions as they sit down and decide what to eat.

“A London School of Economics (LSE) report commissioned by the U.K. government found there is strong enough evidence to conclude that decapod crustaceans and cephalopod mollusks are sentient,” says study co-author and philosopher Kristin Andrews, the York Research Chair in Animal Minds, in a university release.

Professor Andrews, in collaboration with Professor Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, authored this latest report on the subject of emotions and animals. The report discusses both the ethical and policy considerations that would arise if the world considered these animals sentient.

The study emphasizes that up until now, Western culture has largely proclaimed that other animals don’t feel emotions or pain.

“It’s been a real struggle even to get fish and mammals recognized under welfare law as sentient. So, it’s pretty cutting-edge what seems to be happening in the U.K. with invertebrates,” Prof. Andrews notes.

Animals avoid pain just like people

It may seem hard to believe now, but up until the 1980s there were some who theorized that “pre-verbal human babies” did not feel pain. Even today, countless people believe most animals, including invertebrates, don’t experience pain and merely react unconsciously to negative stimuli.

These beliefs may be prevalent and ingrained in some cultures, but researchers say they aren’t grounded in science. Research over the past few decades on mammals, fish, octopuses, and crabs have all produced the same results: Animals avoid pain and dangerous situations to the best of their abilities in any given situation. Some animals, such as cows, even display signs of empathy. A mother cow will often become distressed if her calf is in pain or some kind of trouble.

The team suggests that Western culture has been slow to accept the sentience of invertebrates due to all of the ethical and moral questions it raises. Life is certainly simpler when someone can order crab cakes or calamari at a restaurant without feeling guilty. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but the study authors say animals really do feel emotions and pain just like humans. They just aren’t as well equipped to vocalize or describe those feelings.

“When we’re going about our normal lives, we try not to do harm to other beings. So, it’s really about retraining the way we see the world. How exactly to treat other animals remains an open research question,” Prof. Andrews explains. “We don’t have sufficient science right now to know exactly what the proper treatment of certain species should be. To determine that, we need greater co-operation between scientists and ethicists.”

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Will seafood become part of ‘our species’ moral landscape’?

In conclusion, Prof. Andrews believes a day will soon come when humanity can no longer tell itself crayfish, shrimp, and other invertebrates are emotionless and invulnerable to pain.

“If they can no longer be considered immune to felt pain, invertebrate experiences will need to become part of our species’ moral landscape,” she concludes. “But pain is just one morally relevant emotion. Invertebrates such as octopuses may experience other emotions such as curiosity in exploration, affection for individuals, or excitement in anticipation of a future reward.”

The study is published in the journal Science.