How My Friendship With a Fish Changed My Life
A Story of Love, Speciesism, and Vendetta
By Abhijit Muduganti
“Capturing stray dogs and drowning them is not a wholesome father-son activity, and neither is fishing, which is basically the same thing.”
The animal rights movement is speciesist. From focusing entirely on consumer habits to using explicitly speciesist language, we constantly engage in the very form of oppression we claim to be fighting against. There is perhaps no other way in which speciesism within the movement manifests itself more as the ugly cause of suffering it is than through our exclusion of certain species of sentient beings from our advocacy. This is the story of one person, but it could be about anyone whose experiences have been erased by systems of violence and whose pain has been underplayed in favor of others’.
She had no name. I want you to remember that throughout. It troubles me to this day that after all the ways in which she influenced my life, I hadn’t even bothered to give her a name. I will call her E for the sake of this story. E came to us in a bowl crammed with eight other goldfishes*. It was my brother’s birthday, and someone decided that it was a good idea to gift him sentient beings without even bothering to check if we knew how to take care of them. And my family accepted the “gift” without bothering to learn how. Every one of them except E died within the next few days.
Everything about it was an absurdly blatant display of human disregard for other species. After the tragedy, my parents and I paid a visit to a nearby locality, which was popular for its pet stores, to learn how take care of fishes. It was horrifying. The sights and sounds still haunt me. It was difficult to imagine how anyone would look for companions there. There is absolutely no love to be found in exploitation.
After hours of trying to find anyone who remotely cared about the animals they were selling, we found a person whose livelihood was based on the humane-animal-exploiting paradox. It was clear that she cared about the fishes she was selling, and yet she was completely comfortable breeding them and trading them for money. She was angry at the way the fishes were given to us in a small bowl and claimed that she would never sell them in conditions like that. She knew everything there was to know about caring for fishes. She asked us to move E to a bigger tank and sold us an air pump to keep the water oxygenated.
My parents promised her that they would shift the fishes to a bigger tank. They didn’t stick to the promise.
E was stuck in the bowl she came in. I protested for a few days, but soon gave up. My parents were adamant that she stay in the corner she was in, where there was not enough space for a tank, because it was good vastu, a superstitious Hindu architectural belief.
I know I should have protested harder. If I was the person I am now, I would have. I wouldn’t have stopped at protest either. I would have defied my parents, found a way to obtain the money, and bought her a tank; but I was not the person I am today. I traded E’s freedom for my convenience.
Nevertheless, E soon became my best friend. I rushed home from school every day to greet her. Her feeding time become our bonding time. I used to talk to her about my problems. She probably did not understand what I was saying, but who cared? All that mattered was that she listened. Yes, she definitely listened. She knew when I was talking to her, and she stayed with me as long as I was doing so. She used breaks in my verbal monologues to swim around before returning to indulge herself in our conversation. She fascinated me, and by the looks of it, I fascinated her. It was a relationship built on mutual admiration, and that is undoubtedly the best sort of friendship.
Then, one day, around four years from the day E came to us it all broke down. I returned home from school and ran to her spot only to find that there was no bowl. There was no E. I screamed for my mom and she came running from the kitchen. I asked her what happened to E, but I kind of already knew. She was gone. They flushed her body down the toilet. They flushed my E down the toilet.
I was furious. I locked myself in my room and cried my heart out. I lost my best friend.
My parents didn’t understand my sorrow, and they kept trying to figure out what was bothering me so much. They kept knocking on the door, telling me that it wasn’t a big deal and that we needed to talk about it. I came out of the room after a few hours. Everything felt so empty. There were no tears left, and there was no anger. I told my parents that it upset me very much that they disrespected E by disposing of her body that way.
My dad pointed out that it was hypocritical of me to care so much about one fish when I didn’t mind eating other members of her species. He wasn’t wrong.
I did stop eating fishes and other non-human animals. It was a few weeks after E passed away. I was at the dinner table with a chicken leg on my plate and our dog, Snowy, sitting beside me and staring up at me. I looked at the piece of dead flesh, looked at Snowy, looked at the chicken leg again, and then put it down. It was a chicken’s leg. It could belong to Snowy, or E! I couldn’t justify my behavior any longer.
My entire world transmuted into a sort of dark parody of itself. I just couldn’t look at things the same way anymore. Animals, individuals like E, were being slaughtered everywhere and always. I knew I just wouldn’t be able to stand by and let it go on.
I went vegan not very long afterwards. I started taking action and fighting for non-human animals. It wasn’t easy back then and it still isn’t, for as much as I’d like to believe that the activism that I do now absolves me of my apathy, complacency, and my participation in their systematic exploitation, the truth is that however much we try to be the most effective activists for non-human animals, we will never be able to just discard our human privilege and break free from the system of human supremacy.
We will probably always be closer to our non-vegan past, and to other human beings who insist on viewing non-human animals as products, than to being anti-speciesist allies to those like E. The guilt is a burden, but it is something we all need to bear as members of the dominant species. It is overwhelming, but it keeps me grounded as an activist and acts as a constant reminder that no part of this struggle for animal liberation is about me.
So what prompted me to tell E’s story? It was another little person like her. A few weeks ago, my partner and I decided to check out a “pet store” that was notorious for animal abuse. We found animals in the most horrific conditions - reptiles, birds, mammals, and fishes all suffering from lack of space and a host of illnesses.
We hadn’t planned on rescuing someone from the store, but by the time we got to the betta fish section, we definitely were thinking about doing so. The fishes were stuck in tiny boxes (like bettas are at any pet store), and some of them were already dead (again, like at any store). After fifteen minutes of planning, we snuck a betta out of the store. Liberation!
We named him Vendetta after the graphic novel. It seemed fitting, because we knew that he will always be a symbol of resistance against tyranny and that his life will always inspire us to fight for justice. Vendetta now lives in a 20 gallon tank, complete with live plants, hideouts, temperature control, filter, air pump, Indian almond leaves, and a hammock. He loves human (and cat) company and comes out from behind his little castle to greet visiting humans (or cats).
He lived in atrocious conditions before we found him, but now we are always looking for ways to make his life better. At the pet store, he was stuck in a tiny 0.1 gallon container (one two-hundredth the volume of his current home). Bettas prefer a temperature of 78-80°F and need to have filtered and oxygenated water; those sold at pet stores have access to neither and are forced to live in temperatures low enough to freeze them to death. He had most likely been transported to the store from a breeder somewhere in the country or overseas, in a tiny bag with little water**. His fins were rotting away and his amazing medley of blue, purple, and red would have faded away with him. Vendetta probably would have lost his life at the store, lonely, scared, sick, and without a name.
Isn’t that what makes all the difference - names? John Stewart, while interviewing Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, said,”It's harder to eat meat when you know the animal's name.” He now run his own sanctuary. This is a story far too familiar in the animal rights movement. Connecting with individual animals and learning their stories helped many of us rethink our ways of life and activism. Our bonds with our companion animals are what keep us motivated to do what we do. DxE recognizes this fact and focuses on telling stories of individual survivors like Scarlett.
As allies in the struggle for animal liberation, it is very important for us, as a movement, to let go of biases towards or against certain species of non-human animals. Our petty prejudices shouldn’t make life difficult for sentient beings who we refuse to include in our crusade for justice. Liberation is not hierarchical in nature and extends beyond race, nationality, sexuality, gender, or species. While you’re cuddling with your companion cat or dog tonight, think of E and Vendetta. Think of the millions of fishes sold as ornaments in pet stores across the world. Think of the trillions of fishes, who are either suffocated to death or are raised and murdered in factory farms, whose bodies lie on the shelves of supermarkets. Fight for fishes, like you would for dogs, cats, pigs, or humans. Fight for the lives lost, but more importantly, fight for those who are fighting for their lives. Fight as you would if they had names.
*The reason I use ‘goldfishes’ as the plural form of ‘goldfish’, and subsequently ‘fishes’ as the plural of ‘fish,’ is because I believe that it is important to recognize the personhood of each individual fish and to stop viewing these amazing beings as a bunch of mindless animals. The industries that thrive on speciesism do so by erasing the individualities of animals and using language that reflects such behavior. We need to counter that by liberating our language to reflect our values.
**Minimal water is used in the bags so as to leave as much air in the bags as possible, which allows them to be transported long distances. Bettas have organs similar to lungs that allow them to breathe in oxygen from air and this is used against them. Many die during transportation.
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