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Siamese fighting fish in a bowl.


Jonathan Balcombe is a Belleville, Ont.-based biologist and author of What a Fish Knows.

In our fast-paced, human-centered lives, we are often oblivious to the remarkable capacities of so many animal species, like those of our underwater cousins: fish. I have spent years exploring the inner lives of fish. What I’ve uncovered indicates that we grossly underestimate these fabulously diverse aquatic vertebrates, including the striking betta fish – who are so often treated as mere trinkets by pet stores.

Our own false sense of superiority allows us to devalue these animals who seem so foreign to us. Having evolved in a fundamentally different environment to the air-breathing vertebrates, fish look and function differently than us, at least superficially. They cannot breathe air, and we cannot breathe water. It is as if we hailed from different planets. Their eyes, while served by the same six ocular muscles that serve our eyes, are unblinking and appear fixed. (There is, of course, no need for eyelids to spread tears over eyes that are constantly bathed in water.)

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But a closer examination reveals that appearances can be deceiving. Not only has science essentially put to rest the malevolent myth that fish do not feel pain, we now know that they are sentient beings with meaningful lives.

Take cleaner wrasses, for example. They make a living by plucking food (parasites, dead skin, algae and other undesirable substances) off client fish who line up on reefs to wait their turn for the spa treatment. This well-studied, elaborate symbiosis involves episodic memory, behaving differently based on who’s watching (the so-called audience effect), account-keeping, brown-nosing, deception, cheating and Machiavellian scheming. Just weeks ago, an international team of researchers published a new study showing that cleaner wrasses pass the mirror self-recognition test – previously passed by only a handful of big-brained animals.

It follows that a fish’s place in the world is not merely to be sold, displayed or eaten. This includes the colourful betta fish sold in tiny cups and marketed as a means to brighten up a room.

I’m thrilled to see that compassionate people everywhere are now speaking out against the mistreatment of betta fish. PETA and kind people in cities all over have organized protests against the sale of bettas at pet stores, and a new class-action lawsuit was recently launched against three major retailers, including American giant Petco, urging them to bar the sale of appallingly inadequate mini tanks.

Thailand has recognized betta fish by naming them the country’s aquatic animal. But the best way to honour them would be for retailers to stop selling them altogether, and for consumers to stop purchasing them.

In Canadian stores – such as Pet Valu and PetSmart – these lovely fish are displayed in plastic cups with barely enough water to turn around in, much less swim. This miserable existence contrasts with life in their natural Asian habitat, where they navigate the shallow waters of rice fields, ponds and slow-moving streams that can stretch for kilometres. At a bare minimum, captive bettas should be provided with gallons of water. And despite claims that they can only live by themselves, under the right circumstances, they can thrive in the company of other fish.

In a social setting, restraint and cordiality are defaults for even the most pugnacious of animals. When free from the artificiality of captivity, male bettas stop killing one another and exhibit co-operative group behaviour. In tanks, however, a weaker fish’s efforts to defuse a tense situation by removing himself are blocked.

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Bettas actually have exceptional mental prowess that aids them in avoiding dangerous fights. Studies at the ISPA Instituto Universitário have found that rival males monitor other males’ performances in disputes, and they show a greater deference to winners than to losers.

Male bettas are also attentive fathers. They build bubble nests and guard their developing eggs until they hatch. When Dad senses danger, he creates a wave that can be detected by the young, who then swim to him and hide inside his mouth.

More broadly, fish have many achievements: They plan, recognize, remember, court, play, parent, innovate, manipulate, collaborate, communicate with gestures, keep accounts, show virtue, form attachments, possess culture, fall for optical illusions, use tools, learn by observation and form mental maps. I have become convinced that fish merit no less respect and moral consideration than their celebrated vertebrate cousins, mammals and birds.

When fish are treated as inventory – things to be stocked, stacked, priced and unloaded – they suffer. Shoppers who wander into a store and impulsively buy a betta may be under the impression that these intelligent fish require little care. (On the PetSmart website, these complex creatures are advertised as “easy to care for” and “a great ornamental addition to any desk, kids room or living space.”) As a result, many are promptly neglected.

So many of the world’s ills, both past and present – racism, terrorism, war, sexism, climate change, speciesism – have roots in the arcane mindset that one group (one’s own, of course) is better than another. Nowhere is our superiority complex more apparent than in our attitude toward other animals. We would do well to consider that no beings have any say in whether they are born manatees, bats, hornbills or betta fish, and that they all have an equal desire to live their lives in freedom.

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