Skip to content

On the Keeping of Endangered Fishes


An Animal Person reader wrote me with the following question:

There are many species of cichlids in Lake Victoria that are on the verge of extinction, and most are hardy and small enough to be kept in an aquarium. There are conservation efforts to save these species by individual aquarists, who are keeping and breeding them in hopes that they can someday be reintroduced into the lake. Assuming that the fish are kept in a large aquarium that mimics their natural habitat, and that the keeper treats the fish as family (as they would a rescued dog, cat, rabbit, etc.), would you see keeping these fish confined in an aquarium as a rescue effort or as a selfish act by humans that interferes with Nature?

I think my feeling on it is that it's more of a rescue effort; that we humans made the mess that endangered the species in the first place, so we should do our best to fix it. As I share a home with rescued cats and rabbits, I can't help but think that it's better for them to live their lives cared for and loved than to be put to death in a shelter somewhere due to irresponsible overbreeding, even if they are now confined to the house.

Of course that also brings up the dilemma of feeding cats and fish, who are omnivores and actually need to eat some meat in order to be healthy. I adopted the cats before I became a vegan, and although I don't like the fact that they eat other animals, it is my responsibility to keep them healthy.

(I intend to stick with rescuing rabbits from now on.) I have always loved fish, and I'd like to be able to keep a species from becoming extinct, but is this an appropriate activity for a vegan? I'd really like to get your opinion on this.

For me, part if this goes to the question of whether or not we should breed or otherwise try to restore endangered species, in general. The answer to that question could, for some, be dependent upon whether the endangering is our doing.

The analogy to mammals we rescue is interesting; it's a good point. Is keeping animals because they're endangered any different from keeping them because they are homeless? 

Can we ever meet the needs of fishes by keeping them in our homes?

What do you think?

Photo of 72 gallon african cichlid tank from Flickr Erica_Marshall's photostream.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. First of all, thanks for the photo use and attribution.

    I must admit, even as a meat-eater, I agree with you. Every time I look at my fish tanks (I have 2: a cichlid tank and a smaller tank with 2 hand-me-down goldfish) I don't feel the relaxation that so many talk about. I feel bad. They are trapped. Do they feel it? Do they get bored? Do they ever feel hungry, hot, cold? Who knows? I can tell if my dogs are happy, sad, anxious, etc. The fish are just living ornaments in my living room and I must admit I'm not completely happy with the arrangement. It's interesting that you feel the same.

    August 25, 2010
  2. Laurie Rodriguez #

    Thanks for posting my question, Mary! Whether or not we can meet the needs of fish in captivity is a good question, and I don't know the answer. I was talking with my husband about it last night, and his view on the subject is that if the fish were tank bred, then they don't know what they're missing by not being in the lake. As far as they're concerned, life is good; they have enough food, there are no predators but plenty of rocks and caves to hide in anyway, there's medicine if they get sick, and they have interaction with each other and with humans/other animals outside the tank. I'm not sure if it's really as idyllic as he made it sound, or if they instinctively know and feel confined. They can and do breed in captivity, which implies that they feel safe and comfortable to some degree. All the cichlids I have ever met are chock full of personality, and if you spend time with them, you start to be able to sense what's going on with them. I'm not sure if that would extend to other endangered species kept in captivity though; for example, are insects able to communicate with us? That might be a tangent, but it still comes back to the question of whether or not we should breed or otherwise try to restore endangered species. I'm still torn on this issue.

    August 26, 2010
  3. Erica & Laurie,
    Thanks for writing!

    I've always had a problem with fishes and marine mammals in tanks. Whatever the size of the enclosure, it just doesn't seem right. Their needs can't possibly be met. The cat question is interesting, as I keep my cat indoors and though she does get some exercise and stimulation, her need to prowl around isn't met–let's face it. And then there's the issue of feeding her animals.

    But it's also the way I've done things that has led to this situation, as I don't provide her with enough stimulation and exercise.

    The issue of breeding is something I think about often. I don't think we should be breeding anyone. And this is where the cat analogy doesn't work, as we're not keeping cats to keep the species alive. I don't think we should be breeding cats or owning cats and if they're going to die out (domesticated cats), that's fine with me. Same with species that are dying out because of us (or not). I'm not sure what the motivation is to resurrect or save animals as their populations are decreasing. It seems like we're doing it because we want them in *our* world, and that's not a good reason for me.

    August 27, 2010
  4. Porphyry #

    There are more tigers in Texas than in India but it is not because we are doing tigers any favors. It may be the case that the only tigers left will be in captivity. I’m not sure whether I find that good or bad, mostly sad I suppose.

    That was the first thought that came to my mind; a factoid I heard twice this past week.

    But here’s my full response:

    I tend not to view all wildlife conservation issues as vegan issues per se. When it’s an issue of “we may have to suppress an invasive species population that is disrupting an ecosystem” there’s a chance it may be the right thing to do. Or not. It depends. If it’s a question of “humans are hunting whales (or whoever) to extinction” that is a vegan concern on top of a conservation issue.

    A vegan concern works better under the question of whether it is exploitation or not. Sure, some vegans are more along the line of reducing suffering or animal rights as in a right to life, but I think they entangle veganism in places where it doesn’t need to necessarily be. (Note: the animal right concept as a right not to be property parallels non-exploitation quite well.)

    Assuming the ecosystem is intact, should we keep lions from eating gazelles? Under a non-exploitation doctrine, there isn’t any problem with wild animals eating wild animals or many of those other issues where people assume that if an animal is killed it’s somehow inherently a slight against vegan sensitivities.

    Besides, this notion of keeping animals safe from predators by keeping them captive (and ultimately exploiting them) or shooting deer to reduce they’re suffering by preempting their starvation is a rationalization we hear from non-vegans. Also, this notion of animals born into captivity won’t know any better doesn’t absolve the situation either. In a philosophical sense, we wouldn’t allow this condition for humans, and there are examples of such captivity.

    Recall the story of young Jaycee Lee Dugard where her abductor kept her in his backyard for years and they conceived two children. The abducted woman probably did come to love her captor being so young as to not know any better and not have any choice really, but clearly the situation was reprehensible. In a non-human example, animals like chickens and pigs, though breed and confined for generations in industrial systems, still experience frustration for not being able to fulfill their base instincts. Even pet animal species who are quite socialized living with humans have many behaviors that aren’t met adequately by owners, a trend getting worse as pet ownership increases rural living declines. There is a rise in owners giving pharmaceuticals for to dogs to cope with psychological issues.

    With that said, vegans can be sensitive and responsive to conservation issues. There may be other options besides extermination of an invasive species and as vegans tend to be an empathetic crowd (that a recent study in neuroscience confirms) there’s a chance that a more humane solution that could be realized with vegans approaching the problem since most non-vegans tend to view non-humans as mere objects.

    A quick Google search on the cichlids in Lake Victoria, ( ) and it seems like they are facing many pressures: non-native species that were introduced that both feed and the cichlids and compete with them for resources, increased pollution, and increased algae growth. The linked article is in favor of keeping cichlids, but it’s in favor of collecting all sorts of aquatic life to keep in personal menageries.

    Yeah, I don’t really have any straight advice. I don’t see much of a future for the cichlids. Either they die out in Lake Victoria, they die out in captivity, or become a species of captive fish perpetually. It seems slim that cichlids, once crowded out of Lake Victoria, will be able to return anytime soon unless bigger environmental issues are addressed. Hopefully marine biologists in the area are aware of the problem and are attempting to sort it out. They would probably be better equipped to do so. Perhaps a donation to such an organization would be a better use of personal resources than taking on additional animal rescue responsibilities. I do wonder that if people, or more importantly fish store suppliers, go out of their way to “acquire specimens” of Lake Victoria cichlids for their “protection,” whether this is contributing to their declining numbers.

    I can certainly appreciate the argument of trying to do something rather than nothing. If the Laurie does choose to proceed believing that it will help the cichlid situation, the best I can recommend is to be sure she is honest with herself and her motivations and delineate a long term plan for the cichlids.

    If all our endangered wildlife end up living in human captivity I don’t think it really benefits the individual animals, the species, the environment, or us. It may make us feel better that they aren’t extinct yet, but without a plan to successfully reincorporate them into the wild, they become living shadows. Having endangered animals in personal museums means squat for biodiversity.

    This type of dilemma for captive endangered species is only going to get worse in the upcoming years.

    August 27, 2010
  5. My thoughts on the matter were already written up a while ago here:

    August 29, 2010

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS