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British study: lobsters might experience feelings, including pain

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

If you've ever cooked a lobster, the traditional method is dropping it into boiling water alive.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. Conventional wisdom is that that's the most hygienic way to cook them and also that lobsters don't feel any pain. A new study from the U.K. says otherwise.

JONATHAN BIRCH: There's evidence that a lobster will carry on living for two to three minutes when it's dropped into a pan of boiling water and that the nervous system response carries on very intensely during that time, just as it would with you or me or a cat or a dog or any animal dropped into a pan of boiling water.

MARTINEZ: That's Dr. Jonathan Birch, associate professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He led the study and looked at a whole range of mollusks and crustacea to see if they were sentient - in other words, if they were animals that could feel sensation.

KING: And it wasn't just lobsters. They looked at octopi, squid, crabs, even shrimp. And it turns out all of them can feel.

BIRCH: We drew on over 300 scientific studies looking at various different types of evidence with a particular focus on evidence for pain, you know, not because pain is all that matters. In fact, all feelings matter, including feelings of pleasure and joy and so on. But pain has been the most studied because it does have this special significance for animal welfare.

MARTINEZ: Birch and his team recommended more humane ways of dealing with these creatures, from the catching to the cooking, things like specialized knife techniques.

KING: And this whole thing has prompted the British government to include them in an animal welfare bill that could mean changes to the laws in the future.

BIRCH: I don't expect anything to happen quickly in this area, but I think if we start a conversation now, if we draw this line in the sand that says from now on, we're going to think of these animals as sentient beings, that then starts a conversation about what that means and what it is to treat these animals humanely. And that's the conversation we wanted the report to start.

MARTINEZ: Birch hopes this move alters the way we regard all invertebrate animals in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF GORDON'S TSUNAMI WEEK'S "THE PALE LIGHT SOFTENS EDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.