Why I Do Not Eat Shellfish
Do oysters, clams, mussels, and other shellfish feel pain? As people, we can look at a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, and know that when they are cut with a knife or burned, they feel pain. They scream. Their faces contort. Their bodies convulse. In other words, they react like we would react if someone stabbed us or set fire to us. There is no question about it: mammals and birds can feel pain and suffer just like we, mammals ourselves, do.
Fish Feel exists to inform people that fish also feel pain, even if we cannot so readily see ourselves in them. Biologists and other scientists tell us this is so. Perhaps we cannot hear fish scream, but we can see them physically struggle when they are, for example, cut with a knife or burned or hooked. Like us, they have central nervous systems. Like us, they can and do suffer when hurt.
But, what about shellfish? They are even more distant from us than fish. Fish have eyes, fish have mouths, fish have brains and nerves, external and internal body parts that we can relate to. They look at us and swim away if we reach out for them. But shellfish? Open an oyster’s or clam’s shell and what do you see? A blob of flesh. No face, no limbs, no bones. No brain in the way that cows and chickens and fish and we have. There is little we can relate to. So, can shellfish feel pain?
Here is the story of why I believe that they do.
When I turned 20, I became a vegetarian. I gave up red meat and bird flesh, and then fish. This coincided with my moving from a dormitory to private housing and cooking for myself in an actual kitchen. I bought fresh meat, cut it up, sliced off the fat, rinsed off the blood, cracked some bones, and decided that none of it was for me. But I never thought about giving up shellfish.
One night I decided to cook mussels for dinner. I had never cooked any live shellfish before. At most, I’d thrown some frozen clam strips in the oven. I went to the store and came home with a bag filled with still-living mussels. I read up on how to cook them. After washing them, the first step was to cut off their byssus, commonly referred to as a “beard,” the hairs that extend from their closed shells. Mussel use those hairs to attach themselves to solid surfaces underwater. To remove the hairs, you hold the mussel in one hand and use a knife to slice off the hairs by running the blade across the shelves.
This is what happened the first time I cut the beard off of a live mussel: I held the mussel in my left hand, ran a sharp knife’s blade across the hairs, tugged off the stubble, and felt something jump inside my left hand. I did the same with the second mussel, and it happened again: I slid the knife across the hairs, tugged off the stubble, and something jumped inside of the shell that I was holding.
It was the living animal inside the shell reacting to having part of its body removed.
You might ask, was the mussel feeling pain? I asked myself that question that night. I thought long and hard about it. After all, he or she was just an invertebrate, a mollusk who was little more than a blob of flesh inside a shell. If he or she had a brain, it was nothing like ours or any other advanced animal. Was the mussel really feeling pain?
I decided that the answer was yes. It might not be pain in the way you or I or cow or chicken or fish might feel pain, but to the mussel, it was pain. While the mussel’s beard is made of keratin, like human hair, and so does not contain nerves, the beard is attached to its body. We all know the pain of having our hair pulled. Central nervous system or not, this little animal moved every time I pulled off the remaining beard from its body. That was good enough for me. It was a matter of giving the mussels and other shellfish the benefit of the doubt. If eating them possibly meant causing them pain, even on a primitive, shellfish-style level, then why do so? Why choose to ignore the possibility rather than accept it?
Like I said, we know that mammals feel pain. Birds feel pain. Fish feel pain. As far as I am concerned, shellfish feel pain. If I am wrong, then no big deal. There are plenty of other things in this world to eat. But if I am right? Then, I am glad that I decided to stop intentionally causing pain to these animals. I have not eaten shellfish since that night, many years ago, and I have no regrets.
photo: Brocken Inaglory
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