In 2003, the late David Foster Wallace visited the annual Maine Lobster Festival, where he spent several days internally debating whether or not to cook—and to enjoy—lobster, because he was unsure whether the state’s most famous marine crustacean could feel pain when it was submerged into a pot of boiling water.
“A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle. This is part of lobster’s modern appeal: It’s the freshest food there is,” he wrote in “Consider the Lobster,” his well-known essay originally published in Gourmet magazine. “So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the US: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”
Fifteen years later, the Maine Lobster Festival is still going strong, and PETA has decided to welcome visitors by reminding them that no, no it is not alright. (Wallace mentioned that there were no PETA activists “in obvious view” in 2003, but the group’s objection to the event was already well-known). The animal advocacy group has purchased $3,000 worth of ads at the Portland International Jetport—the state’s largest airport—and is encouraging potential lobster eaters to go vegan instead of going to the Festival.
Each ad features a picture of a lobster holding a sign that says “I’m ME, Not Meat. See the individual. Go Vegan.” According to the Portland Press Herald, PETA paid for the ads to remain in the terminal for a month, and they’re strategically located near what the group refers to as “the notorious Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster Cafe.” In addition to actually cooking lobsters, PETA takes issue with the fact that Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine restaurant allows travelers to purchase live lobsters to take as carry-on items on their flights. (And yes, this is Linda Bean, as in the heiress to the L.L. Bean company, which means that the cafe is just one Stephen King sewer clown away from having EVERYTHING MAINE STANDS FOR in one place.)
“Most people wouldn’t consider putting a dog or a cat in a pot of boiling water,” PETA spokesperson Faith Robinson told the Press Herald, suggesting that cooking a lobster is fundamentally the same as cooking your own pet. “Lobsters feel pain.”
Although a spokesperson for the city of Portland suggested that offensive ads could be challenged, the consensus was that these fell under PETA’s First Amendment rights. The editorial board for the Portland Press Herald exercised its own First Amendment rights, and suggested that PETA should focus its efforts elsewhere. “As to the question of whether eating Maine lobsters can be considered ethical, we do have an opinion. It is,” they wrote. The board said that lobster fishing in Maine is “one of the most sustainable” industries in the world, that lobsters are not harmed when they’re caught in those boxlike traps, and that fishermen always throw back any young, pregnant, or large “breeding” lobsters to ensure that the population is healthy and thriving.
When it came to actually deciding what lobsters could and could not feel, Wallace didn’t have a conclusive answer. It seems like scientists don’t, either. Bob Bayer, the executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, told the news outlet that research had suggested that lobsters “likely” don’t have sophisticated-enough nervous systems to feel pain. “There’s never going to be an absolute answer,” he said. “[The lobster’s] not going to tell us.”
But PETA says we should consider it, anyway.