The British Parliament is processing the draft Animal Welfare Law (Sentience) that will recognize that non-human animals are sentient beings, that is, beings with the capacity to experience positive and negative states. In other words, to enjoy and suffer. In addition, it is studying to support an amendment that contemplates the protection of invertebrate animals, such as decapod crustaceans – crabs, lobsters, prawns, among others – and coleoid cephalopod molluscs – octopus, squid and cuttlefish. If the amendment is upheld and the law passed, practices like shipping live crustaceans or boiling live lobsters would be banned. They are necessary advances that could alleviate the suffering of millions of animals, but insufficient. If we are concerned with reducing suffering in the world and with animal welfare, ending their exploitation should be one of our ultimate goals. However, that the scientific evidence about who the other animals are comes out of academic circles to generate debate in institutions is good news.
On the other hand, both the campaign #LessMeatMoreLife announced by the Minister of Consumption Alberto Garzón as the excessive reactions to it make invisible the most immediate consequence of the consumption of animal bodies and secretions: the damage that these practices pose to exploited non-human lives.
In the eyes of ethics, we must take into account the interests of all those individuals who may be positively or negatively affected by our actions. Otherwise, we would be incurring arbitrary discrimination -By reason of species or speciesism-. Thus, putting the focus on animal sentience invites us to critically review the relationship we establish with other sentient beings that, according to the available scientific evidence, are probably all vertebrates and possibly certain groups of invertebrates.
This article presents some of the pharmacological and behavioral studies that suggest that invertebrates such as crabs and octopuses are not simply organisms with reflex responses. In fact, the current data incline us to consider that cephalopods and decapods are sentient beings, which calls us to broaden our circle of moral consideration.
Pain, play and individuality in cephalopods
You are in the central space that separates two rooms. You can choose which of the two you prefer to be in. One of them has blue walls, the other red. You decide to enter the blue one and as soon as you walk through the door you feel a sharp pain in your arm. The next day you must face the same decision. What room will you enter?
Animals can learn to avoid suffering – such as avoiding the room in which you have experienced pain – and develop a preference for situations in which we experience positive states. Last March they were published in the magazine Science the results of a study that exposed octopuses to situations similar to the one described in the previous paragraph.
In this study, they not only observed that octopuses avoided the space where they received a painful injection of acetic acid, but they also developed a preference for the space where they were given a pain reliever after injection, suggesting that octopuses octopuses must experience some kind of negative sensation in the first case and relief in the second.
But the range of experience does not end with pain. Gambling, a behavior linked to positive emotions, has been observed in octopuses on several occasions. Their exploratory nature leads them to handle plastic objects, dragged from here to there or passed from one arm to the other. Octopuses have also been observed shooting jets of water to a plastic bottle, moving it to the opposite end of the tank, where the current will push it back towards the octopus, who will be waiting to repeat the action.
Another relevant aspect in the debate on sentience and animal exploitation are their preferences and individualities, since it is expected that each individual experiences their relationship with the physical and social environment in a different way. As an example, they have been documented individual differences at the level of exploration, aggressiveness, reactivity and daring in ball squid.
Terrestrial animals killed for human consumption are reported by number of individuals. Instead, cephalopod and decapod deaths are counted by weight. On 2018 A total of 3,636,575 tonnes of cephalopods were caught worldwide.
To the catch figures, we will soon have to add those for aquaculture production. In recent years, scientific-commercial projects have flourished, with Spain among the pioneer countries, which aspire to occupy the niche of octopus domestication and the implementation of fish farms that produce them en masse, thus diversifying the damages that these invertebrates suffer as a consequence of human action. Some of the main concerns include cannibalism and the aggressiveness that emerges when octopuses are crowded, parasitic infections, digestive problems, and behavioral restrictions imposed by the sterile farm environment. Nueva Pescanova, hand in hand with the scientific production of the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, aims to ensure that the corpses of farm-raised octopuses reach the market in 2023.
From crustaceans and electric shocks
The last statistics of the FAO on crustacean catches indicate that in 2018 1,581,274 tonnes of crabs and spider crabs, 304,478 tonnes of lobsters and lobsters and 3,455,260 tonnes of prawns and shrimp were killed. Regarding aquaculture production, there have been estimates by number of individual: in 2017 between 43-75 billion crabs and lobsters and between 210-530 billion prawns and shrimp were killed.
What data is handled in the debate on sentience in decapods? Probably some of the most cited studies are those of scientist Robert Elwood and hermit crabs. Hermit crabs quickly leave their shells when they receive an electric shock in what may appear to be a reflex response. However, the shell output is a behavior that can be executed after performing a certain balance of commitments: In the event of an electric shock, crabs are less likely to abandon higher quality shells. This modulation of the response to electric shock suggests that crabs do not respond automatically to noxious stimulus.
It has also been characterized that certain decapods can learn from harmful stimuli and their reactions to them can be modulated based on the administration of analgesics and anxiolytics. For example, common crabs, who prefer to be in dimly lit spaces, can learn to avoid entering a dark shelter when associated with an electric shock: “These data, and those of other recent experiments, are consistent with the key criteria of the experience of pain and are very similar to those in vertebrate studies, “say the researchers. When a harmful chemical is applied to an antenna of a shrimp, it will take time to rub the area. This behavior will be mitigated if local anesthetic is administered. River Crabs subjected to electric shocks end up showing signs of anxiety and avoiding illuminated areas, effects that disappear with the administration of an anxiolytic.
In the context of the exploitation of these animals, potentially harmful practices can be identified from the time of capture or rearing to the time of slaughter. For example, females of shrimp They can be subjected to a mutilation called eye peduncle ablation, which is intended to cause the laying of eggs in aquaculture production. On the other hand, at the time of collection of the animals for marketing, they can be left up to three days without eating so that the intestine is clean. They can be stored on ice – an illegal practice in Switzerland and Italy – or in crowded tanks, excessively lit and without shelters. They can be shipped alive with the associated risk of injury, stress, and suffocation. They can kill dismembering them alive or putting them in boiling water. In the latter case, the data indicate that the lobsters move violently for about two minutes after being introduced into the water and it is estimated that the sea oxen could perceive the temperature of the boiling water for at least 2 and a half minutes.
From data to homework
There is no single test to clarify whether or not a given species is sentient; a set of observations that include cognitive, physiological and behavioral aspects must be considered. In the context of the debate around the draft Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act in the United Kingdom, five specialists have presented evidences –Some of them described in this article– with which they defend that the available data should make us seriously consider the possibility that cephalopods and decapods are sentient.
Along these lines, in his latest book, Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness, the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith opts for a scenario in which sentience is not exclusive to vertebrate animals, but is also present in some groups of invertebrates such as cephalopods and some arthropods – crustaceans among them. Therefore, today, the question is no longer if sentience exists beyond human experience, but when and how many times it has appeared on the tree of life.
The horizon of affections expands beyond what many people are willing to accept. We are presented with the exercise of narrowing the distance between knowledge, practices and ethical reflection, which also includes questioning the legitimacy of the studies described here. If we assume the commitment to put our scientific production at the service of the most vulnerable, understanding the experiences of non-human animals leads us to reject their exploitation.