I was recently asked to comment of an paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology that purported to have discovered that crabs feel pain. The paper by Magee and Elwood demonstrates that if you apply a shock to a crab in a shelter it moves away and avoids returning to that location again. I’m not that impressed with the paper as you could just read it as “if you apply a potentially damaging stimulus to a crab it will move away”.
When I commented, I started with, “I’m not an expert in this area but from a brief cursory examination it looks to me that the authors have demonstrated that crabs move away from a potentially damaging stimulus, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel pain”
I was reported in the Guardian as saying exactly that. Fair enough you might think. However this is a classic example of a trainee journalist trying to re-write a story. He didn’t report that I went on to say:
“It’s a complicated and emotive area and personally I am less bothered by whether animals feel pain than by the intentions of the human being inflicting some sort of unpleasant stimulus on any animal. A small boy pulling the legs off a spider is something I find distasteful and as an adult consider unethical, whether the spider feels pain or not is irrelevant. What bothers me is the intent of the individual to enjoy the discomfort of another living thing – the young boy shares certain similarities to fox hunters and anglers. These ‘hunters’ enjoy watching an animal suffer – e.g. by fleeing for its life or struggling to escape from a hook. Compare and contrast this with a hunter targeting deer in the highlands with a rifle. These folk generally take pride in a quick clean kill and are devastated by the thought, if they miss, that they may have inflicted suffering on their target.”
Not quite what was reported.
I am in effect parroting a previous piece of work Eugene Balon who really made me think a few years ago about how we treat fish. I was also informed by another very recent, excellent and thoughtful paper by Rose et al which suggests that we have not yet proved that fish can feel pain. I grew up in the Shetland Isles, a place that at the time was dominated by fishing. I saw millions of fish being casually tossed onto the quayside and in my head they were like vegetables. Whether they feel pain or not just never occurred to me, they were just fish. When I went Aberdeen University to study for a Masters in Marine and Fisheries Biology, I worked in a lab where blood samples were routinely extracted from fish – the research group was primarily interested in the immune system of fish. In order to take just a small blood sample from a fish the lab needed several home office licences and people had to attend training courses where they were acquainted with the law and allowed procedures. Quite the opposite approach to fish that a fisherman might take. I considered the extremes to which labs had to go quite excessive. These fish were treated very well and minimal amounts of pain or stress were imposed on them whatever procedures were being carried out.
A few years later, I got involved in the UK Shark Tagging programme. In the field of angling and and science the law in Britain becomes completely bizarre. It is perfectly legal for a fisherman to catch a shark and leave it to asphyxiate on the deck of a boat. He or she can gut it live if they want. If you are an angler or a scientist involved in a tagging programme, where the angler (or scientist) treats the fish with extreme care, gently brings it alongside the boat, tags it with a streamer tag, gives the fish time to recover and then lets it go, technically they are breaking the law.
I stand by my feeling that whether animals feel pain or not is irrelevant. To damage or stress a living organisms for no reason other than to enjoy their struggling and suffering is like taking a hammer to a Ferrari or slashing the Mona Lisa. It is an act of pure mindless vandalism.
Magnus Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Marine Science at the Department of Marine and Biological Sciences at the University of Hull