Murphy: We Feel Your Pain

March 7, 2018 10:00 AM
Switzerland sets a new bar for prevention of animal suffering. Two questions, though: Do they have the right to claim that moral high ground, and will a new law to that effect do any good?

For the most part, the country of Switzerland gets a pass from those of us in the U.S.

From a distance of thousands of miles away, and bolstered by our relative cultural myopia, most Americans view that Euro-nation through a prism that mirrors the gauzy, saccharine story of Heidi, as portrayed in the eponymous movie by legendary child star Shirley Temple.

In that 1937 classic, Switzerland is depicted as a scenic vista of snow-capped mountains and lush alpine meadows inhabited by benevolent goat herders and charming old cheesemakers living in idyllic bliss.

In high school history, we’re taught that Switzerland was officially a “neutral” country in World War II, but the reasons why that nation was able to sidestep the carnage that ravaged the rest of Western Europe are rarely explored.

While Switzerland never participated in the pogroms of the Third Reich, is it really okay to serve as bankers to the Nazis? In effect, the country’s financial establishment “looked the other way” while hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, gold and other valuables stolen from Europe’s Jewish communities were deposited in Swiss bank accounts and/or laundered on behalf of high-ranking Nazi officials.

That backstory of willful ignorance is relevant because modern-day Switzerland is now a leader in establishing strict rules of engagement for animal welfare.

Millions of Jews dispossessed of their worldly belongings? No problem.

A food animal subjected to a moment of suffering? Outrageous! That must be stopped!

What a Way to Go
To that end, USA Today reported that a new law took effect in Switzerland on March 1, one that bans the tossing of live lobsters into boiling water to kill them. That practice is being outlawed because the Swiss have declared, “It’s cruel, and lobsters can sense pain.”

Note the wording: Lobsters “sense” pain, not lobsters “feel” pain.

Is there a distinction? Experts are undecided.

In a review article in Business Insider, it was noted that The Lobster Institute in Maine contends that the lobster’s primitive nervous system is similar to that of an insect, suggesting that since they don’t have complex brains, they can’t process pain like humans or higher animals.

In 2014, however, a scientist from Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, argued that lobsters do feel pain, given that crabs in a study learned to avoid a hideaway where they were repeatedly given an electric shock.

(Question: That’s how you establish the grounds for humane treatment of crustaceans? By repeatedly blasting them with electric shocks? Talk about the end justifying the means).

Regardless of the reality, Switzerland is the first country to enact legislation requiring a “humane death” for lobsters. But here’s what’s confusing: The solution may be as bad as the (alleged) problem.

The new law requires that lobsters be “rendered unconscious” before being dropped into scalding water. To quote the USA Today story, “Two methods are recommended: electrocution, or sedating the lobster by dipping it into saltwater and then thrusting a knife into its brain.”

Hold on — it’s better to jam a knife into the lobster’s brain, rather than drop it into boiling water? Incrementally, I suppose.

As for electrocution, I guess it’s possible to be done in a restaurant without endangering the kitchen or waitstaff. In fact, there’s a device on the market called the “CrustaStun,” which costs several thousand dollars, but which allows a chef to “zap” a lobster’s nervous system with a jolt of electricity.

That said, how is having what amounts to an in-house electric chair to which lobsters are sentenced going to be perceived by restaurant customers? Who wants to explain to the adults at the table as their kids listen in that, “We use a very humane method of electrocution prior to dropping your fresh, formerly live lobster into boiling water.”

Isn’t the next question, “You mean you electrocute them?”

“Why, yes — but in a very humane way, as I just explained.”

The same law also provides additional protections for domestic pets. For example, dogs can no longer be punished for barking.

(Hey, it’s never Fido’s fault — it’s the owner who needs to be punished).

The legislation is part of the principle of “animal dignity” enshrined in Switzerland’s constitution, the only country with such a provision. In practice, it means that cats must have “daily visual contact” with other felines, hamsters or guinea pigs must be kept in pairs and flushing a pet goldfish down the toilet is against the law.

No word on whether that last provision applies to alligators or not.

Of course, activists praised the measure.

“Globally, Switzerland is in the forefront of animal welfare legislation,” Antoine Goetschel, an attorney and founder of the Zurich-based Global Animal Law Association, told USA Today. He’s also the lawyer who represented a 22-pound pike in court, a “plaintiff” he said endured terrible suffering when a local fisherman yanked on it for 10 minutes before pulling it from Lake Zurich.

(No surprise: The defendant was found not guilty).

One can only wish that Switzerland’s deep concern for a cat’s visual enrichment and a goldfish’s constitutional right to die in its own bowl would have extended to the millions of people the Nazis rounded up, stripped of their possessions and executed in ways that absolutely didn’t qualify as a “humane death.”

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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