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David Foster Wallace considers the lobster

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'Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?' This is the question posed by the renowned author David Foster Wallace in 'Consider the Lobster,' his August 2004 feature on the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine. Wallace, who has been hailed by critics as a literary genius, wrote this article 'to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and salutation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival.' Gourmet editors may have gotten more than they bargained for, but Wallace's words echo the concerns of thinking people everywhere.

For Wallace, the Maine Lobster Festival inspires an unflinching inquiry into the ethics of boiling an animal alive. His article highlights two specific coping mechanisms that people adopt when confronted with the reality of animal suffering--avoidance and denial. Wallace admits that his 'own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing.' However, upon arrival at the Maine Lobster Festival, he found that 'there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.'

Wallace's article explores the excruciating pain that lobsters feel when they are boiled alive, taking both scientific evidence and his own observations into account. He expands his analysis to consider the question of eating meat in general, as well as the deeper question of how humans relate to other animals. Click here to read the full article.

Wallace jumps into his assignment, quizzing the rental-car guy, Dick, about lobster sentience on the ride from the airport. Dick explains to Wallace, 'There's a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobsters' brains don't have this part.' Wallace explains, 'Besides the fact that it's incorrect in about 11 different ways, the main reason Dick's statement is interesting is that its thesis is more or less echoed by the Festival's own pronouncement on lobsters and pain ''

Wallace looked into the science on lobster pain and reports that lobsters do possess the parts of the brain that feel pain--both nocioceptors, as well as invertebrate versions of the prostaglandins and major neurotransmitters found in our own brains.

Beyond having the parts of the brain necessary, lobsters also have very sensitive pain receptors. Wallace states, 'Lobsters don't have much in the way of eyesight or hearing, but they do have an exquisite tactile sense, one facilitated by hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs that protrude through their carapace. 'Thus,' in the words of T.M. Pruden's industry classic About Lobster, 'it is that although encased in what seems a solid, impenetrable armor, the lobster can receive stimuli and impressions from without as readily as if it possessed a soft and delicate skin.''

If It Looks Like Pain --
And they certainly act as if they are suffering when we 'prepare' them (Wallace asks that we 'note already the semiconscious euphemism 'prepared,' which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens'). He writes, 'Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature's claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming).'

Lobsters don't have vocal cords' they use pheromones to communicate. Wallace dispels the myth that lobsters scream when they are boiled alive, saying, 'The sound is really vented steam from the layer of seawater between the lobster's flesh and its carapace ''He notes that 'the myth's very persistent' which might, once again, point to a low-level cultural unease about the boiling thing.'

Cooking live lobsters does not result in a quick and painless death. 'According to marine zoologists,' Wallace writes, 'it usually takes lobsters between 35 and 45 seconds to die in boiling water.'

He also notes, 'However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you're tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container's sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle's rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof.'

Facing the Facts
Lobsters suffer from the minute they are trapped until the last agonizing seconds of their lives. Like other animals used for food, lobsters are torn from their natural habitat and transported long distances. 'They come up alive in the traps,' Wallace writes, 'are placed in containers of seawater, and can, so long as the water's aerated and the animals' claws are pegged or banded to keep them from tearing one another up under the stresses of captivity, survive right up until they're boiled.'

Wallace confesses that he has 'not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system' in which eating lobsters is morally defensible. '[A]fter all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience.'

'Lobsters,' Wallace reports, ''are known to exhibit preferences. Experiments have shown that they can detect changes of only a degree or two in water temperature; one reason for their complex migratory cycles (which can often cover 100-plus miles a year) is to pursue the temperatures they like best. And, as mentioned, they're bottom-dwellers and do not like bright light: If a tank of food lobsters is out in the sunlight or a store's fluorescence, the lobsters will always congregate in whatever part is darkest. Fairly solitary in the ocean, they also clearly dislike the crowding that's part of their captivity in tanks, since (as also mentioned) one reason why lobsters' claws are banded on capture is to keep them from attacking one another under the stress of close-quarter storage.' Watching the lobsters outside of the World's Largest Lobster Cooker, Wallace asserts that 'it is difficult not to sense that they're unhappy, or frightened.'

Lobsters are similar to other animals in many ways. Wallace mentions that some 'lobsters can live to be over 100 'though truly senior lobsters are rare now, because New England's waters are so heavily trapped.' Bonded lobsters share a shelter during mating season, and a female lobster carries her young for a nine- to 12-month gestation period. These crustaceans communicate with each other to establish social relationships, and they can travel 100 miles or more during their seasonal migrations. Lobsters are now recognized as sensitive animals who are capable of feeling intense pain. You can find more little-known facts about lobsters here.

Although Wallace's assignment was to write on the lobster festival--and he took liberties with the assignment and wrote, instead, about the cruelty of boiling lobsters alive--he couldn't help expanding his examination to other animals as well. What he found could not have soothed the palates of meat-eating Gourmet readers.

While he considers lobsters going insane and attacking one another, hence the need for bands around their claws, Wallace adds a footnote about other animals: 'Similar reasoning underlies the practice of what's termed 'debeaking'broiler chickens and brood hens in modern factory farms. Maximum commercial efficiency requires that enormous poultry populations be confined in unnaturally close quarters, under which conditions many birds go crazy and peck one another to death. As a purely observational side-note, be apprised that debeaking is usually an automated process and that the chickens receive no anesthetic. It's not clear to me whether most Gourmet readers know about debeaking, or about related practices like dehorning cattle in commercial feedlots, cropping swine's tails in factory hog farms to keep psychotically bored neighbors from chewing them off, and so forth . . . Lobster-eating is at least not abetted by the system of corporate factory farms that produces most beef, pork, and chicken,' Wallace writes. 'Because, if nothing else, of the way they're marketed and packaged for sale, we eat these latter meats without having to consider that they were once conscious, sentient creatures to whom horrible things were done.'

When we cook lobsters at home, we kill them ourselves--on the other hand, the other animals we eat are raised in windowless sheds and warehouses, where their suffering is hidden. These animals never see the sun or breathe fresh air until they're crammed onto trucks bound for slaughter, and we don't see these animals until their neatly wrapped body parts appear in the grocery store's freezer section.

Wallace admits that he was largely unaware of the 'horrible things' that animals endure before they arrive on our plates. Through an 'elaborate editorial compromise,' PETA's 'Meet Your Meat' video, 'in which you can see just about everything meat-related you don't want to see or think about' was not named in his article, but Wallace does say that he found 'this unnamed video both credible and deeply upsetting.' You can watch 'Meet Your Meat' here.

It's never been easier to choose a cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle. You can find amazing resources, including recipes like ''Lobster 'Bisque' and vegan 'Paella' at www.vegcooking.com .

Request a free vegetarian starter kit to make the switch today!

More About David Foster Wallace

Hailed by the Boston Globe as 'probably the most important novelist of his generation,' David Foster Wallace is widely recognized as a modern literary icon. The 42-year-old author has written both fiction and nonfiction works, and his most recent novel, Oblivion, has received resounding critical acclaim. Other notable works by David Foster Wallace include the best-seller Infinite Jest: A Novel and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Wallace graduated from Amherst College and Arizona State University, and he received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as a 'genius grant.' In 1998 and 1999, he received the Outstanding University Researcher Award for his work as a professor at Illinois State University. Wallace currently teaches creative writing at Pomona College in California.

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