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Crawfish Have Anxiety (And That’s No Joking Matter)

» June 14th, 2014

Here’s a nugget of advice for writers covering stories about the largely hidden emotional lives of animals: as you document nonhuman sentience don’t mention how delectable the animals are to eat. That’s bad form. It’s like writing about war and cracking jokes, or covering a house fire and joshing about all those zany! pyromaniacs.

In a way, it’s remarkable that one has to even note such an obvious point of writerly etiquette. But when it comes to journalism and animals, there are no codified rules, no standards that journalists need follow. So, when tasked with writing about a serious discovery bearing on animal cognition, journalists too often resort to inane attempts at cute humor in an effort to make the piece “entertaining.”  This is especially the case when the topic is technical in nature.

But for anyone who knows anything about animal ethics, it’s not entertaining. It’s offensive. A recent article at reiterates why. The writer, a freelancer and Smithsonian contributor named Rachel Numer, opened with the news that crawfish—invertebrates—turn out to experience anxiety. That’s cool, and important. The author rightly notes that the conventional wisdom was once that only vertebrates worried. She suggests that the kind of anxiety under discussion is the kind that humans experience. In any other realm, this kind of connection would warrant a tone of gravitas, especially given the seriousness with which the scientists undertook their work (described quite well by Nuwer).

But animals don’t get the gravitas treatment. Nuwer, after reporting the critical kernel of news, somehow feels compelled to pepper her report with fluffy and whimsical asides, as if she were writing for fifth graders. She refers to “those delectable freshwater crustaceans,” which is a ridiculous thing to say about an animal upon whom you’re reporting news about its sophisticated intelligence. (Plus, it’s subjective. When I ate animals I found crawfish disgusting to eat.) Dumbing down the matter to an unprecedented degree, the author next includes a recipe for cooking crawfish, noting that “those [crawfish] that come with a boiling cauldron of Cajun spices, corn and potatoes (mmmm delicious)” will have undergone especially high levels of anxiety. Well, yeah.

Articles in which the writer clearly knows nothing about animal ethics typically include an unintentional contradiction—done by way of evasion—regarding the moral implications of the scientific discovery being described. Numar scores big in this front. She ignores several hundred years of ethical thinking about animals when she blithely assumes that human emotions are “more sophisticated.” She writes, “Crawfish, the team thinks, could serve as excellent study subjects for future anxiety research, as well as for exploring the evolutionary origins of more sophisticated (read: more distressing) forms of anxiety that occur in humans.” More sophisticated? How? What do we mean by sophistication? Has this writer heard the word “speciesist”? Comments such as these are understandable, given the peripheral nature of so much work being on animal ethics and behavior. But they scream for a corrective.

Proof that the author has no idea of her own complicity in fostering attitudes inimical to the findings she writes about, Nuwar concludes, “Unfortunately for the crustaceans, crawfish’s status as invertebrates means that many of the ethical protections their rodent counterparts enjoy are not extended to them.” With articles like this one, it’s not hard to see why.

Update: Please do not post comments personally lambasting the writer mentioned in this post. The Pitchfork is better than that! The point of this piece is to educate, not to insult. Calling the writer names will hardly initiate a change in her perspective. Thank you.  -jm