Dissecting the Pain That Crabs Feel

Recent studies have shown that crustacean neurology is similar to vertebrates, which points to a likewise experience of pain in human suffering. After watching my family hack at living crabs over the years, it's lead to a lot of internal conflicts.

|
Oct 18 2015, 5:00pm

Foto von bigbirdz via Flickr

For his essay "Consider the Lobster," David Foster Wallace is sent to the Maine Lobster Festival, where he witnesses lobsters being boiled alive—supposedly to maintain their natural flavor—which invariably leads to the greater question of whether or not a lobster has the neurological capacity to experience pain, and how sophisticated that pain is, in the sense of being sentient of such pain. Recent studies have shown that crustacean neurology is indeed similar to vertebrates, which points to a likewise experience of pain as in humans. Since there is no way to inhabit a lobster's consciousness, he writes both himself and the reader into a blissful hole.

At what point is an animal suffering oddly anthropomorphized; that is, turned into a human quandary of philosophical and moral projection? Conversely, isn't this question just a shoddy rhetorical excuse for an obvious fact—that all suffering is equal?

His older brother, my uncle, even more severe of a man, would rip off the entire shell, exposing their inner organs as they went berserk. If at any time I commented on any of this, they would call me gay.

My father used to rip off crabs' legs while they were still alive, in preparation for a classic stir fry dish. I gently asked him why not first kill the crab by, as per culinary instruction, quickly slicing their brain in half with a knife down the middle of their face. He said—and a lot of Chinese believe this—that when you kill an animal, its death permeates the meat, like some kind of spiritual toxin, and you want to kill it as late as possible in the cooking process. Per this twisted logic, the severed legs of the crab—still faintly contracting on the cutting board, like fingers saying, "come hither"—were still alive, technically. His older brother, my uncle, even more severe of a man, would rip off the entire shell, exposing their inner organs as they went berserk. If at any time I commented on any of this, they would call me gay.

This article could have been about how I didn't eat the crab; how, in solidarity to the fallen, I fasted in protest. I remember dreading their every sullen movement in the plastic bag next to me in the back seat while we drove home. But by the time the crab made its ultimate appearance, from plastic bag to cutting board, to wok, to plate, it was covered in scallions, ginger, onions, and a sauce rendered from its roe reduced in Cognac. I cracked the shell and slurped out the meat. I sucked hard.

A cat and dog's greatest evolutionary trait (through the lens of Darwinism) is sustained eye-contact with humans, to evoke a kind of relationship with us, whose eventual domestication turned them into pets, and not food. Yet, this is somewhat cultural (a handful of YouTube clips showing Vietnamese cooking dog has incited racist remarks, often by the same demographic that would do similar to deer). Food ethics anoints certain animals worthy of slaughter, and certain animals not. In Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed, anthropologist Jared Diamond mentions Norsemen in Greenland who starved, at times even resorting to cannibalism, because they considered fish and shellfish disgusting alien-like monsters risen from the dark waters. Their xenophobia kept them from learning from nearby Inuit, who basked in fish and prospered. Personally, I try to ignore the fact that lobsters are giant insects.

Stir-fry crab is a traditional Chinese Cantonese dish also reinterpreted in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. You blast it with heat so that the meat steams in its shell, barely cooked, tender as hell. I would always pull on the tendon attached to the claw, activating its hinge. It seemed grotesque—yet oddly thrilling, even intimate—that this crab would use it to grasp within its shallow world, seeking prey, surviving. Now it was in my oily hands, her pasty roe coating my lips.

If she suffered when my uncle ripped her shell off—the glands, gills, heart, arteries, and brain hitting the searing air—then the sensation of insane torment vanished inside that tiny brain. Pain is a hermetic story the body sends to the captain, impossible to be felt, or even understood, by others. Let alone another species. Suffering is the collateral damage of another's survival. In chains, we are bound to the food chain.

During these family crab binges, my grandmother would come around with a plastic bag—perhaps the very one our torn apart crab was brought home in—to collect all the shells left on the table, some whose orphaned shards were pasted to our faces. She was old and slow, our ailing matriarch, at times fumbling with the bag's opening. We hinted "hurry up" in the universal language of grunts as the next crab was brought in, feeling little sympathy for her. What she felt in that head of hers was her own business.