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On the Feelings of Fish

As I was on my daily run wearing my "Fishing Hurts" fishing hat, I saw a neighbor whose livelihood has something to do with fishing (he’s got at least 100 fishing rods in his garage, and one of those boats with the stand at the top. Oh, and he’s trying to teach his 2-year old how to cast a rod, but I won’t even start on that.). He clearly read my hat, as evidenced by the way he avoided looking me in the eye thereafter, abruptly finished what he was saying and hustled away.

I actually felt bad for him. There he is, with probably close to a million dollar mortgage, two kids, expensive SUVs, a boat, his wife doesn’t work outside the home, and on some level, he’s got to know that his industry is the cause of untold agony. Rather than despising him, I have to feel compassion for him.

In "Do Fish Have Feelings Too?" in today’s Guardian, I discover that fish just might finally be getting their day in the conscience court of human beings. Sure, we’ve always saved a spot for cats and dogs in our conscience, and many of us have broadened that spot to include other animals, particularly mammals. But as most vegetarians and vegans know, fish is usually the last flesh product to be jettisoned from the diet. There’s just something so, well, other about them. They’re tough to relate to–all those gills, they don’t walk, they live in water, they appear to be forever awake–it’s not easy to view such a creature as in any way like all the others we deem important or worthy of not torturing.

However, the problem with fish having their own category (edible, tormentable) is that the category is based on the reality that they’re so different from us, or so we like to think. But as it turns out, they’re not so different. They have a decent memory capacity, they learn and pass on their learning, and what’s most important, when they’re stressed–like when they’re stuffed in a tank for kids to stare at–they exhibit repetitive behaviors as disturbing as a big cat pacing.

Finally, the problem with categorizing according to traits at all, is that it positions us to create a system whereby we get to decide who’s dinner and who isn’t, who gets to experience which level of unspeakable torture in a lab, and who is important enough to save from the brink of extinction (even if we’re the ones responsible for the near extinction).

The only category that matters is that they–all of them–all sentient beings–have an interest in not being in a tank, a cage, or on a plate, dismembered. Forget about complex, controversial and debatable systems for deciding who is most like us, and in what way, therefore deserving of respect. Respect them all.

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