On Surreal Lobster Advocacy
My self-appointed job in this blog is to think critically about how our human lives intersect with those of sentient nonhumans, in action and thought.
Yesterday I received an e-mail alert from the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) regarding "a coin operated game that uses live lobsters at the Royal Palm Ale House in Royal Palm Beach. In this game, the object is to pluck live lobsters out of the water with a joystick-controlled crane."
The e-mail continues:
"ARFF contends that lobsters suffer tremendously when they are relegated to tiny tanks and subjected to loud noises, prodding and pulling by a mechanical claw, and prolonged starvation. Supported by scientific evidence that confirms that lobsters feel pain—just as all other animals with sophisticated nervous systems do—ARFF has requested that the Royal Palm Ale House remove this atrocity from its otherwise reputable business immediately."
In the Palm Beach Post's article, "Animal rights activists appalled by Ale House's lobster game," the restaurant's owner says he has no plans to remove the game and says the patrons love the novelty.
"The restaurant doesn't offer lobster otherwise, so the game is a fun way to strive for a meal that would otherwise cost at least $15, said Jorge Cruz, 33, who has tried it a dozen times."
The final sentence of the article is: "It's no different than a lobster tank in a restaurant," said Palm Beach Ale House owner Jay Starr.
The ARFF want us to write letters to the editor of the Post.
Here's my concern: Though I think the game is disgusting and cruel, it sort of pales in comparison to what comes next for the lobsters. I don't agree that the game is "no different than a lobster tank" (at least conceptually–I haven't seen it), but "animal rights activists" should be campaigning for the cessation of the slaughter and consumption of lobsters, shouldn't they? If there is to be a demonstration on the 22nd (that's the threat), and if I am reading this correctly, those opposed to the situation are objecting to the game, and that seems a bit weak to me. If they want what's best for lobsters, they should be advocating for not killing and eating them at any restaurant (and then I guess the question becomes: why stop at lobsters). The message I hear is: tormenting animals before you brutally torture and slaughter them is wrong, but brutally torturing and slaughtering them without the preceding torment is okay.
What do you think of this campaign?
Are lobsters sentient? My understanding of the scientific evidence is that while there is good reason to believe that many (and likely all) vertebrates are sentient, evidence for the capacity to feel pain is much weaker in the case of invertebrates — with the exception of cephalopods. We might want to be cautious and avoid boiling lobsters alive just in case. But even so, doesn't it make sense for activists to focus their limited time and energy on behalf of those animals who clearly are sentient? If the balance of evidence turns out to be against lobsters' being sentient, shouldn't vegans be able to join in the jolly game at the Royal Palm Ale House? (One also has to wonder whether there's any good reason for vegans to avoid honey.)
Those interested can read the chapter "Which Animals Are Sentient?" from Gary Varner's forthcoming book here: http://philosophy.tamu.edu/~gary/abstract.newbook.html
(You may have to e-mail Varner for a password.)
Clearly a normal tank is preferable to the game, but it is a waste of time and energy for activists to focus on something so trivial when the greater issue at hand is the elimination of the property status of animals.
In response to Angus's comment: It may be true that lobsters and other invertebrates are not sentient, but no amount of scientific evidence can really prove that. They certainly act like they're sentient. I think we should give lobsters and bees the benefit of the doubt and leave them alone, since our lives are perfectly fine without them. I do agree with your main point, though, that animal activists should focus on the bigger issues.
I think it could be a good idea to use this opportunity to challenge the use of animals as entertainment. Conceptually, this is very different than a tank because it encourages people to play a game at the animal's expense. They could probably get some decent media coverage, in which they could speak about the pain and suffering endured by the lobsters who are boiled alive. Even a "trivial" campaign like this could be an opportunity to speak about all issues around lobsters, etc. There is a good chance that many people might be opposed to this game, even people who eat lobster, since it is such a mockery of their death.
They could even use some good quotes from David Foster Wallace's article about lobsters:
This study http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29915025/ involving crabs suggests that crustaceans are indeed sentient.