"Have you ever played the lobster game?"
"The lobster game?"
"Yeah, the kind with the claw."
"Is this some kind of sick pick-up line? If it is, you need more help than I can give you."
Sadly, this was a literal question. News reached the OC Weekly's offices of skill-crane games, arcade-style games, involving live lobsters. The premise: A successful "catch" of a lobster (i.e., one that drops down the chute) results in the lobster being cooked for free by the establishment. Questions to friends and colleagues resulted in reactions from, "Those poor lobsters cower in the corner," to, "A game where you cook the prize? Awesome."
There are three locations in OC Weekly's readership area with these machine: Beach Club Sports Grill in Long Beach, Longboards in downtown Huntington Beach and Hennessey's Fish Bucket in Dana Point. Heading to the Beach Club, it was hard to know what to expect. Was this a jury-rigged claw game superimposed on a supermarket fish tank? Was this a standard, unreinforced claw machine with lobsters and water replacing the plush toys and iPod nanos? Would the claw rip the animal in half, resulting in half a win dumped down the chute?
None of the above. The game is a specially-built machine with a white plastic claw, a full-sized lobster tank with a very visible aerator and filter in the bottom, and a folded, not very clean towel at the bottom of the chute. Signs instruct patrons to procure a bucket before playing; when asked for a bucket, a cook came out expecting to find a lobster to take away and prepare; according to the cook, the lobster is meant to be dropped onto the towel. The lobsters, which range from 1 to 1½ pounds and are sourced from New England or Canada, had bands on their claws, as in all supermarket tanks, and were very much alive; much perkier, it must be said, than supermarket "live" lobsters. The game costs $2 per attempt, with a bill acceptor that takes bills up to $20.
It became obvious that the lobsters knew what was going on. The first attempt seized a lobster along the carapace, directly behind the claws, a win for sure. The lobster, however, had different ideas and was not particularly inclined to go softly into the boiling pot. It struggled as it was lifted out of the water, managed to free itself, and fell backwards onto its tankmates, which promptly started fighting with the near-victim. The second time the claw went down, all the lobsters scooted to the other side, piling on top of each other more than halfway to the top of the water line, as far away from the white, gripping hand of death as they could get. The third and final try went wide of the mark, as the canny crustaceans shuffled out of range. Quick studies, these lobsters: one of them raised its claw to the intruder in an unmistakable act of defiance, Che Langostavara raising its fist against the human Fulgencio Batista; an homarine middle finger to The Man.
According to Gregg Schaeberle, the owner of CA Lobster Zone, the exclusive licensee of the technology in California, the tanks, which are built specifically for the lobster skill crane game, are serviced twice a week. A touch to the glass proved that the water was, indeed, cold enough to sustain lobsterian life. The lobsters feed on the nutrition found in the water, and when the water starts to foam (read: when the lobsters bleed or defecate enough into the water that the proteins form bubbles visible to humans), the water is changed. The telephone number is posted on the front of all games so that patrons can register concerns or complaints about the tank's (or the tank's contents') condition.
Schaeberle makes a valid point: The tanks are maintained better than, say, a lobster tank at a supermarket. The water in the Beach Club's tank did not have that murky, nasty look that comes from fifty gracelessly aging lobsters in a fifty-gallon tank at Ralphs. According to Schaeberle, lobsters not caught and eaten typically live three to four months in the tank. Should the machine not see enough use, the game is removed from the premises, though the motivation for its removal is almost certainly more due to economics than concern for animal welfare.
It should come as no surprise that animal-rights activists hate this game. Lindsay Rajt, a spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), expressed concern over the "incarceration [of lobsters] in varying degrees of filth, and the making of a game out of catching them." According to Rajt, PETA receives several complaints a month about these machines and engages the leasing establishments to petition for their removal. According to PETA, some establishments are unaware of the cruelty issues and remove the machines; should they prove resistant, PETA puts out an "action alert" online to its members.
Schaeberle dismissed the efficacy of these campaigns, saying, "These protests are usually minor--with a letter to the bar--go away in a matter of days and have had no impact on any business." Rajt countered by saying that a similar game involving live kittens and puppies would be unconscionable and result in immediate removal. A stirring comparison, but not quite apt; kittens and puppies in such a situation would probably not be killed and eaten with drawn butter and lemon. (Every right-thinking person knows kitten is better when cooked as ragù and served over tagliatelle, anyway.)
Ultimately, the biggest problem with the lobster games is not its cruelty but its mathematics. At $2 a chance and a 5 percent success rate (according to the parent company's study of the machines, which are not pegged to a specific win percentage), the calculated average cost of a lobster is $40. That's no bargain. Steamed bugs at The Lobster on the Santa Monica Pier, a white-tablecloth, fine-dining establishment, cost $27 a pound prepared, and come with potatoes and asparagus. Tan Cang Newport Seafood in Santa Ana and King Harbor Seafood in Garden Grove typically sell "house special" lobster (stir-fried with garlic and scallions) for $10-$12 a pound, though they sell enormous 3-5 lb. crustaceans. Should you wish to buy lobster for your own culinary depredations at home, $8-$12 a pound is the going rate at markets, though you face the dirty-tank problem.
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The other problem is the potential for culinary ineptitude in the preparation of the lobster. The target audience for CA Lobster Zone is much further down the fanciness scale: while bars and restaurants make up the bulk of the machine placements, according to Schaeberle, other placements have been located at clubs, fairs, grocery and convenience stores, "gaming centers" (i.e., casinos) and sports venues--not exactly places that cook a lot of lobster. When asked about preparation, a cook at the Beach Club said the lobster would be boiled. The window between juicy, fragrant boiled (or steamed) lobster and expensive seafood jerky is a narrow one; while the cooks at the Beach Club Sports Bar and Grill may actually be very adept at lobster cookery, it seems far more likely that their expertise would lie with burgers, chicken sandwiches and fried bar appetizers.
Is the game cruel? No, not especially, considering the ultimate fate of these seagoing creatures. Certainly the catching is not much worse than purchasing live lobster at a market, in which case the lobster is grabbed by human hands, plunked into a plastic sack and dumped unceremoniously first onto the scales, then into the shopping cart, and eventually onto the conveyor belt at the checkout. It does seem slightly "not cricket" (pun absolutely intended) to toy with one's dinner before killing it and eating it, but the game also weeds out the uncoordinated, the depth perception-impaired and the unskilled. The game is simply a huge waste of money; a family of four could eat at the Beach Club for the average price of one of these lobsters. If lobster is what's for dinner, a good fishmonger or a restaurant which specializes in such things will be cheaper and perhaps slightly less damaging to the karma.