Halloween is almost here, but some of 2018’s scariest moments have already happened: Bankruptcy and allegations of fraud. Shotgun death. Being boiled alive. I’m talking about controversies swirling in Maine this year around animals killed for food.

While frightening to a full-time plant eater, these controversies illustrate two promising ideas that are beginning to seep into the mainstream: One is the idea that animals have rights, and the other is the growing understanding of the link between raising animals for food and environmental degradation.

It’s impossible to live in Maine and not talk about lobster, and this year much of that talk has presented both state residents and visitors with uncomfortable truths.

The year began with news from Switzerland that it would become illegal after March to boil a lobster alive. As a result of the law, lobsters eaten in Switzerland now must be stunned before cooking. (New Zealand was the first to enact such a law in 1999.) Animal rights activists quickly launched a campaign to pressure the United Kingdom’s environment minister to follow suit. So far, that effort has failed.

Throughout the year, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) popped up in Maine to inveigh against lobster consumption. First, PETA bought ad space at the Portland International Jetport for the summer tourist season. PETA’s bright pink posters greeted visitors with a picture of a lobster holding a sign that read, “I’m me. Not meat. See the individual. Go vegan.”

The Norfolk, Virginia-based organization returned in August to protest an estimated 4,500 lobsters killed in a roadside crash in Brunswick. PETA asked the Maine Department of Transportation for permission to place a gravestone near the site of the crash. Though the state denied the request, I count the effort a success: Before PETA’s proposal, news reporting focused on pounds of live lobsters involved (7,000) and the dollar value of the loss ($65,000). After PETA chimed in, Mainers were forced to consider those 4,500 lives.

The traditional scientific view is that lobsters’ nervous systems aren’t well developed enough to feel pain, even when being boiled alive. But a growing group of scientists now say lobsters do feel pain, possibly even more acutely than we do. The best known scientist in this new camp is Robert Elwood, a professor emeritus of animal behavior at Queen’s University in Northern Ireland, whose work formed the basis of the Swiss ban. Elwood says the same findings that convince most that mice feel pain are there for lobsters, and our differing treatment of the animals is “illogical.”

As the debate continues, sensitive vegetarians aren’t the only ones caught in the crossfire. Some lobster dealers are feeling the heat, too. Last month, lobster pound owner, medical cannabis grower and animal lover Charlotte Gill of Southwest Harbor told the Mount Desert Islander, “I feel bad that when lobsters come here there is no exit strategy.”

Her pinging conscience led her to experiment with sedating lobsters with cannabis smoke before boiling them. She reported that the medicated lobsters are much more mellow and docile. But Maine authorities informed Gill that sedating lobsters with cannabis may be a violation of state law – even though boiling them alive is not.

Though this makes no sense, it’s not what puzzles me. I’m intrigued by a very different lobster narrative: It’s the story of the beautiful lobster. The rare lobster. The saved lobster. The tale is always the same. Rare-colored lobster is caught. Lobster dealers and fishermen marvel. Researcher says it is one in a million (or 100 million). Rare lobster is donated to an aquarium or released back to the sea. Why are we able to see the unique being inside a blue, a calico, a cotton candy, a lavender or a translucent (ghost) lobster, but not an ordinary brownish-green one?

But even lobsters get more consideration than fish, where we talk species, populations and schools, never individuals. In Maine this year, the talk has been about factory-farmed Atlantic salmon. Two separate proposals are moving forward in Belfast and Bucksport to build massive confined animal feeding operations to raise the fish. So far, the potential risks posed by these projects are not being taken seriously, possibly because the state has little experience with factory farms. But one exception, the violation-plagued DeCoster Farm egg operation in Turner, alone offers ample warning to tread carefully.

The Belfast City Council in April granted the fish factory proposed along the Little River a swift zoning change, a move that has since roiled the seaside city and launched three fish factory opponents into the city council race. Opponents point to the waste water the plant will dump into the sea along with its scale, water usage, location and animal welfare conditions. Factory supporters point to tax revenues and jobs.

These two proposals arrived in Maine as human demand for fish surges, wild fish populations dwindle and ocean-based fish factories face complications from pollution and disease. Proponents of these aquaculture factories argue that raising the fish in indoor farms has little environmental impact. But are such fish truly a sustainable protein? Climate scientists continue to warn humanity that if we don’t shift from diets centered on meat, fish and dairy, we have no hope of heading off catastrophic climate change.

Factory farmed Atlantic salmon wasn’t the only concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) making headlines in Maine this year. Late last month, a large-scale oyster farm proposed for 40 acres of Maquoit Bay prompted outcry among Brunswick residents, who fear the noise it will generate and its impact on the bay’s natural environment.

In April, the three-year-old, much-lauded Gardiner slaughterhouse Central Maine Meats declared bankruptcy. When a lawsuit was filed in May, it alleged fraud and illegal financial dealings by one business partner against the other. The lawsuit also highlighted the $1.3 million in federal Community Development Block Grants and $2.6 million in a USDA Rural Development loan guarantee package that the company secured. Of course a vegan like me is going to find the public financing of such a scheme repugnant. But do others think it’s ethical or right to spend tax dollars on such a venture when Americans already eat too much meat?

Gardiner should be praised for its efforts to cultivate a food hub as an economic development tool. That’s smart. But like all of us raised to think meat-eating is normal, natural and necessary when it’s not, Gardiner and USDA officials need to rethink that perspective or risk making poor investment decisions. And given the slaughter industry’s reputation for dangerous, low-wage jobs, where injuries often go unreported, are these really the sort of jobs we desire for Maine?

While few shed tears for the animals killed in Gardiner, we react differently when an animal escapes. This happened in April when a bull on its way to slaughter escaped in Skowhegan; a police officer shot and killed the animal, generating outrage. Then in September, another public outcry ensued when a man in Embden shot and killed a neighbor’s pet Holstein heifer who’d strayed from home. The shooter was charged with cruelty to animals.

Why is a pet cow different from a cow inside a slaughterhouse? Why do blue lobster lives matter more than brownish-green lobster lives? Why are fish lives never considered at all?

Let’s hope that next year our concern for animals continues to expand.

While such moral relativism has a frightening aspect, I see a way for PETA to use these ethical inconsistencies to the advantage of animals. I suggest the group buy ad space at the jetport next summer but use a picture of a blue lobster instead. Either that or a pet cow.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.