The Mammal Rights Movement: The Angelfish in the Room

By Chris Palmieri

A blowfish saying 'hello' to the camera.

A blowfish saying 'hello' to the camera.

Historically, the Animal Rights Movement may well have been more accurately referred to as “the mammal rights movement,” despite the fact that the vast majority of nonhuman animals that humans harm and exploit are birds, fish and invertebrates. Now, after years of hard work by dedicated activists, birds (the most exploited land animals by number of individuals) are finally starting to be recognized as the sensitive, conscious beings that they are.

Fish, who are by far the most exploited group of animals on the planet, continue to be ignored not just by the general public but also by our movement as a whole. Estimates for the number of individual sea animals killed yearly by our food system are as high as 2.77 trillion. That means for every one land animal we kill, we also kill forty-six wild-caught individual fish. Even more are killed in what the industry terms “by-catch," wherein non-target fish and other marine animals are caught, killed and thrown back into the ocean. A further 37-120 billion are killed on farms, and we hunt millions more for sport. Fish are also the most exploited animals in the pet trade (totaling another 1.5 billion per year) and are quickly becoming one of the most utilized animals in experimentation. (Read more here.)

To make matters worse, there are essentially zero welfare regulations for fish—whether they are wild-caught, farmed or in the pet trade; and there are hardly any adoption or sanctuary networks for aquatic creatures.

How many times have we heard pescatarianism touted as an ethical step away from speciesism? How often do we hear the phrase “60 billion animals per year,” completely excluding the most exploited group? If we see a demonstration, protest, poster, or leaflet, how likely is it to focus on our aquatic brothers and sisters—to give them more than a passing mention? Given the objective number of lives at stake, it’s hard to understand why we don’t talk about them much, much more.

Trout is a species of freshwater fish. Trout are commonly exploited for food commercially, and hunted for sport.

Trout is a species of freshwater fish. Trout are commonly exploited for food commercially, and hunted for sport.

Is leaving fish out in favor of birds and mammals justified in some way? The general public sees fish as unfeeling, cold-blooded automatons; but is this true? Not according to the available evidence. In his recent paper entitled "Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics," Dr. Culum Brown writes:

The review reveals that fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates. A review of the evidence for pain perception strongly suggests that fish experience pain in a manner similar to the rest of the vertebrates. Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioral and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.

Fish- as well as cephalapods, crustaceans and insects- also have individual personalities.  Fish have right and left “hands” like we do, and prefer to be with fish with whom they are already familiar. They can solve problems and learn tricks, display excellent long-term memory, and have large, sophisticated social groups on par in complexity with those of birds and mammals. They are not the stupid, mindless, three-second-memory-possessing creatures the media has led us to believe they are. They neither belong nor fare well in tiny, stagnant bowls but require large tanks of moving, filtered water if not an actual pond, river or ocean. In my own experience, when I play and interact with fish, they follow my finger around, excitedly come to the water’s surface and eat right from my hands.

So how do we explain the animal rights community’s staggering lack of focus on humanity’s most exploited victims? A few possibilities come to mind. One is that humans have a harder time empathizing with those who look less like us. Another is simply negative stereotypes and lack of exposure. Most people-even people who spend their lives in the company of other animalssimply don’t get a chance to know who fish are, and so what they go through in such large numbers is harder to access. 

In an effort to help others better understand who these beings are, I offer Julia’s story:

Julia getting acquainted with her new home.

Julia getting acquainted with her new home.

Julia is a common goldfish. Given her size and where she came from, she is clearly a babyalthough of her exact age I cannot be sure. I found her in a pet store. The conditions in which fish are kept in pet storesall pet stores I’ve seen in my twelve-plus years’ experience caring for aquatic animalsare nothing short of horrendous.

Julia was in a small tank overcrowded with dozens of her brothers and sisters, many of whom were dead or dying. If cats and dogs had been in comparable conditions, we’d consider it a crime. Julia had been deemed a “feeder fish,” meaning she was to be bought, dumped suddenly into a new environment (which is extraordinarily stressful for fish) and eaten alive by a larger predatory “pet” fish. I felt I had to do something. While I avoid giving money to exploitative industries whenever possible, when I looked at Julia swimming actively and in better health than most of her cell mates, I decided to get her out of there.

Julia’s life was valued at 19 cents. For under the value of two dimes, I was able to take her out of the hands of those who caused her harm and give her a chance at life. In her new home, she swam freely in a spacious tank, playing in the bubbles, foraging for food in the gravel and socializing with other fish. She was curious, active and friendly.

Unfortunately, just a few days later, her health began to decline. Despite medical treatment, she passed away in the night about a week after her new life had begun. As is so often the case with beings whom society values so little, the conditions and treatment to which humans subjected Julia deprived her of the opportunity to live a healthy life.

To make animal liberation a reality, we must look beyond the shortcomings of our ethical intuitions. We must challenge ourselves to feel for those who look less like us. We must not forget, and not let others forget, that fish are equal in sophistication, sensitivity and cognitive ability to the mammals with whom we more readily empathize. We must stop leaving them out of our conversations- even if we already leave them off of our plates.