David Foster Wallace would have been proud.* A couple of weeks ago, a group of Tibetan Buddhists bought and released 534 lobsters into the Atlantic ocean. The group traveled from the Kurukulla Center in Medford to Gloucester, MA to purchase the lobsters from a seafood wholesaler on August 3, this year’s Wheel-Turning Day on the Tibetan lunar calendar.

Heart-warming stuff, right? Sounds like the kind of story that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would eat up.

Not quite. And, on second thought, maybe DFW wouldn’t have been so proud.** As PETA points out in an open letter to the Buddhists, by buying the lobsters from a seafood merchant they’re supporting the lobster industry and perpetuating the cycle of catch and eat (even if in this instance the lobsters get to live a little longer, it’s likely a cycle of catch and re-catch).

From the PETA letter:

I hope that you will consider shifting course slightly and encourage your practitioners to save animals permanently by going vegan during this celebration instead of purchasing animals to release them.

Buying lobsters, even for this admirable reason, fuels the lobster industry, allowing it to catch and sell other animals to be confined in crowded tanks and boiled alive. For many years now, PETA’s Indian affiliate has been encouraging celebrants of Wheel-Turning Day not to buy animals to release on this holiday because they often unwittingly contribute to animal suffering by offering financial incentives for vendors to bring more animals to market. In fact, quite shockingly, sellers are known to stock extra animals specifically for this celebration, knowing that they will be bought. While their intentions are good, compassionate people who buy animals in order to release them are encouraging those who exploit animals for profit to stay in a cruel business.

Asking our fellow Buddhists to go vegan for Wheel-Turning Day—and beyond—is a wonderful way to celebrate the kind spirit of the holiday and practice ahimsa.

This is an important point to consider and Buddhists celebrating Wheel-Turning Day in this fashion would be served well to take note. Although, I wonder whether PETA has considered the symbolic value of the lobster release. An action like this, it seems to me, might serve as a catalyst to inspire even more meaningful and substantial action on the behalf of animals. Especially after the level of media attention that this lobster release received.

Consider the lobster as a symbol. By purchasing and releasing all those lobsters in this way a group of Buddhists made manifest a complicated question—How should we be compassionate towards animals? A symbol like that can last. Symbols can carry the culture forward. Even though they are not the real thing—they will always lack real world dynamism—symbols can have real world effects. The question is whether those real world effects are worth the costs.

At the very least, events like this lobster release can start conversations—this blog post, for example, or PETA’s letter. To take an extreme example, look at the recent Tibetan Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire to call attention to the situation in Tibet. He wasn’t being responsible, but he has made people stop and think: What’s going on here?

*In his essay “Consider the Lobster,” which appeared in Gourmet magazine years ago, Wallace writes about the nervous systems and neurology of lobsters and wonders if they feel pain and, if so, whether they suffer from it. After exploring the science of the situation, he goes on to look at the facts available to the naked eye: “Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering.”

**I can imagine him feeling conflicted about it.

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