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animal welfare

How An Octopus Feels When It's Eaten Alive

The controversial practice of eating live animals is still popular in many parts of the world. We asked a cephalopod expert how it feels for an octopus who is on the receiving end.

Hilary Pollack

Hilary Pollack

Short of cannibalism, the most controversial issues in meat-eating today are likely the consumption of dog meat—due to our social and sentimental attachments to the canine species—and the practice of eating live animals. A 2010 article in The Guardian ignited heavy opinions for opening discussion about Copenhagen restaurant noma's dish of still-writhing langoustine; since, the issue has popped up here and there in editorials and YouTube videos.

But in some corners of the world, there is less taboo assigned to eating the still-breathing. In Seoul, South Korea, there are entire restaurants centered around dining on octopuses whose arms continue to squirm when they're placed on your plate—and as they wriggle down your throat.


WATCH: How to Eat Live Octopus

The designations of welfare, cruelty, and simple squeamishness are not always clear-cut—especially in issues surrounding the types of animals that we don't hold particularly near and dear. Why is it that we almost universally condemn leaving a dog out in the rain or kicking a cat, but haven't yet decided whether slowly dismembering a sea creature is truly disagreeable?

Rather than trying to reckon with apples and oranges (or spaniels and squids), I consulted cephalopod expert Jennifer Mather, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta and author of numerous studies on octopus and cephalopod sentience, including "Cephalopod consciousness: Behavioral evidence" and "Ethics and invertebrates: a cephalopod perspective." She has studied octopuses and their close relatives since 1978, and has done extensive field research into the cephalopod mind. I hoped that she could offer greater insight into pain and sentience in octopus terms.

MUNCHIES: Have you come across the practice of eating live octopus over the course of your research on cephalopods? Jennifer Mather, PhD: It's not something I've come across in my research. But there was a discussion I had with PETA about someone who was frying octopuses alive in New York, and I was asked to comment on that.

What do you think an octopus is experiencing when it's being cut into pieces and eaten alive? What's going on physically when their arms continue to move after they've been cut off? It's probable that the octopus's reaction to pain is similar to a vertebrate. They can anticipate a painful, difficult, stressful situation—they can remember it. There is absolutely no doubt that they feel pain. The octopus has a nervous system which is much more distributed than ours. If you look at us, most of our neurons are in our brain, and for the octopus, three-fifths of its neurons are in its arms.

If you've got pieces of arm, because there's so much local control, they might react to the painful stimuli that they get, but they're probably not exactly "feeling pain," because they're disconnected from the brain. But the octopus, which you've been chopping to pieces, is feeling pain every time you do it. It's just as painful as if it were a hog, a fish, or a rabbit, if you chopped a rabbit's leg off piece by piece. So it's a barbaric thing to do to the animal.

My thought is that if you had a whole octopus and tried to eat it, it would be a completely repellant situation because the octopus would try to climb out. I find it difficult to have any sympathy for people who choke on a live animal that they're eating piece by piece.

How can we account for differences in the perception of what constitutes cruelty between cultures? I've talked to other people about this—there is cultural sensitivity, and there is suffering. I suspect that they're just throwing an octopus on a chopping block and cutting off pieces as they go, and they are absolutely causing that animal suffering. There's no doubt about it. But goodness knows, I have eaten raw oysters and raw clams. But they really don't have the central nervous system to be, so to speak, making decisions and suffering.

What about other types of sea creatures—the live langoustine, for example, that caused waves for Copenhagen's Noma? There's an interesting situation because the European Union, over the last few years, looked at all of their animal welfare rules. And one of the things they looked at in terms of rules was, OK, we have to give consideration to vertebrates, but are there any invertebrates that we should give ethical consideration to? After quite some deliberation, they decided that in terms of research, you should give consideration to cephalopods, including octopus and squid, but they did not include crustaceans. But that doesn't mean that crustaceans can't experience the same pain stimuli, anticipation, and memory of painful events that an octopus does.

Are there any ways, short of medical sedation, that one could reduce the amount of suffering while still eating an animal alive? If they stuck a shrimp on a block of ice until it's unreactive, it's probably less aware than it would be if you picked it out of the water and started chewing it from the tail up. You can give an animal a quick and minimally painful death before you eat it—at the least, you can destroy the brain. Of all people, Julia Child had instructions for cutting the brain of a lobster to kill it before you boil it.

What would be the best way to kill an octopus quickly and with minimal pain to the animal? I think it was the Hawaiians who used to bite down on the brain to kill it quickly. What I would do is put it in the freezer. Crustaceans, cephalopods, and mollusks don't have any internal temperature regulation, so if you freeze them you can get them to the point where they're really not conscious. That would be the quickest, easiest way to render an animal that might be conscious not conscious. You don't have to figure out exactly where the brain is, and you don't have to worry about an anaesthetic tainting the flavor of the meat. You just stick it in the freezer.

In your research, particularly with octopus, what was the most surprising evidence of anecdote you found about their intelligence or sense of sentience? They use tools, and they'll think about what they want to do with something even before they do it. There's a wonderful video from some guys in Australia—there are several that have done this actually—they need someplace to hide while they rest. One of them dug up a coconut shell and hauled it around with it, and when it got to the point where it wanted to rest, it picked up the shell, tucked itself inside of it, and went to sleep. I have also seen octopuses unscrewing jar lids easily to get a small crab inside.

They also have spatial memory. Not only can they remember where home is, but they can go out and hunt, come back, and then go out the next day and hunt in a different place. It's not just a sense of direction, it's a sense of where you've been. Understanding that if there's a crab under a rock and you got it, there might not be another crab for that rock for a while.

They're wonderful animals. There's everything to learn about them. They're fascinating.

Thanks for talking with us.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.