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Do crabs and lobsters have emotions and feelings?

People in many cultures around the world do not consider animals to be aware of their feelings and emotions. Animal rights groups have fought to change this perception as it has bearing on society’s ability to give legal protection to animals in need. Although progress has been made, to some extent, in changing people’s understanding that mammals have emotions and can feel pain, the legislation in most countries does not recognize other vertebrates, or invertebrates, as having this level of consciousness. 

In a recent development in the United Kingdom, however, amendments to the animal welfare legislation are proposed that include invertebrates, such as octopuses, crabs, crayfish and lobsters, in the category of organisms capable of feeling pain and emotion. 

“A London School of Economics (LSE) report commissioned by the U.K. government found there is strong enough evidence to conclude that decapod crustaceans and cephalopod mollusks are sentient,” said York University Professor and philosopher Kristin Andrews, the York Research Chair in Animal Minds, who is working with the LSE team.

The declaration follows recent research studies on mammals, fish, octopuses and crabs, showing that these creatures avoid pain and dangerous locations when they can. This indicates that they recognize pain and danger as unpleasant experiences and react in a conscious way to avoid them. In addition, research has shown signs of empathy in some animals, such as cows that become distressed when they see their calf in pain.

“It’s been a real struggle even to get fish and mammals recognized under welfare law as sentient. So, it’s pretty cutting-edge what seems to be happening in the U.K. with invertebrates,” said Andrews.

An article written by Andrews and colleague Professor Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, discusses the ethical and policy issues that arise once governments consider animals to be sentient. The article, titled “The question of animal emotions,” is published today in the journal Science.

Once invertebrates are recognized as having feelings this opens a moral and ethical dilemma, since they cannot say what they feel. It becomes society’s duty to protect them and not allow them to be persecuted or treated cruelly. There will be many people who do not accept that invertebrates have emotions, even though “the research so far strongly suggests their existence,” according to Andrews, who is working on a research project called Animals and Moral Practice.

“If they can no longer be considered immune to felt pain, invertebrate experiences will need to become part of our species’ moral landscape,” explained Andrews. “But pain is just one morally relevant emotion. Invertebrates such as octopuses may experience other emotions such as curiosity in exploration, affection for individuals, or excitement in anticipation of a future reward.”

People will need to view invertebrates differently, should the U.K. animal welfare legislation be amended. Humans will no longer be able to assume that crayfish, shrimps, squids and octopuses don’t feel pain or other emotions. In fact, this may apply to many other vertebrate and invertebrate species as well, which would necessitate our viewing the world rather differently. 

“When we’re going about our normal lives, we try not to do harm to other beings. So, it’s really about retraining the way we see the world. How exactly to treat other animals remains an open research question,” said Andrews. “We don’t have sufficient science right now to know exactly what the proper treatment of certain species should be. To determine that, we need greater co-operation between scientists and ethicists.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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