Fishes Know, Feel, and Care: A Humane Revolution in Progress

New research in the study of animal minds needs to be a paradigm shifter

Posted May 15, 2016

The animals' agenda: Harming us "in the name of humans" needs to stop

A few weeks ago I went to a local sushi restaurant (with numerous vegetarian and vegan options) to enjoy my one of my favorite dishes, vegetable tempura. I ran into a friend and he asked me why I was there ("Aren't you one of those vegans," he asked, knowing I am), and I said I'm here to eat. I also nicely hinted that the fishes whom he's consuming are very smart and emotional beings and they care what happens to them, their families, and their friends. Indeed, fishes are not merely streams of nonhuman animal (animal) protein for us to consume, but also conscious individuals with unique personalities. He carefully listened and told me he'd consider what I had just said. 

The study of animal minds

There's a lot going on in the field of cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) and ethology in general. "Surprises" abound in copious amounts of data that are emerging on the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhuman animals (see for example, "Horses, Cows, and Fish: Their Rich and Deep Emotional Lives") and two essays that just appeared in the New York Times also note this. Both are available online and are easy reads for non-specialists, so I just want to alert you to what's in them and to whet your appetite for more.

The first essay, by Nicholas Kristof, is called "A Humane Revolution," and highlights some recent moves in the area of animal welfare that favor the lives of the animals themselves. After writing about the horrific execution of an elephant named Topsy more than a century ago, Kristof writes, "So maybe there is an arc of moral progress. After many allegations of mistreatment of animals, Ringling Brothers this month retired its circus elephants, sending them off to a life of leisure in Florida. SeaWorld said this spring that it would stop breeding orcas and would invest millions of dollars in rescuing and rehabilitating marine animals. Meanwhile, Walmart responded to concerns for animal welfare by saying last month that it would shift toward cage-free eggs, following similar announcements by Costco, Denny’s, Wendy’s, Safeway, Starbucks and McDonald’s in the U.S. and Canada."

Mr. Kristof goes on to write about what's being called "a humane revolution" by focusing on a new book called The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals (the Kindle edition can be seen here) by Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS; for an interview I did with Mr. Pacelle please click here).

Companion animals, AKA pets, also come into the picture. Mr. Kristof writes, "In the pet store business, two chains — PetSmart and Petco — have prospered without accepting the industry’s norm of selling dogs and cats from puppy mills and other mass breeders. Instead, since the 1990s they have made space available to rescue groups offering animals for adoption. PetSmart and Petco don’t make money off these adoptions, but they win customer loyalty forever, and they have helped transfer 11 million dogs and cats to new homes." The ethics of pet-keeping was recently covered in yet another New York Times essay by Dr. Jessica Pierce called "Is Your Pet Lonely and Bored?" (For an interview with Dr. Pierce please see "Are You Ready to Give Another Animal the Best Life Possible?")

According to Mr. Pacelle, “Just about every enterprise built on harming animals today is ripe for disruption." Mr. Kristof concludes, "In a world of grim tidings, that’s a welcome reminder that there is progress as well. We’ve gone in a bit more than a century from making a movie about torturing an elephant to sending circus elephants off to a Florida retirement home. But, boy, there’s so much more work to do."

While numerous people want more, and for the wanton and brutal abuse of other animals to stop completely -- and I surely do -- these are steps in the right direction. However, we need to keep the pressure on for more and further changes in what people are allowed to do to helpless animal beings "in the name of food, clothing, science, and entertainment," excuses that really translate "in the name of humans." It's important to celebrate successes that help other animals so that people, perhaps mostly youngsters, see that some progress is being made and that there is hope. But these are just beginnings. 

Fishes aren't unfeeling streams of protein but rather experience streams of consciousness

Among the "surprises" that are regularly appearing in scientific literature are data clearly showing that fishes are smart and emotional beings. The second New York Times essay published today is called "Fishes Have Feelings, Too" by Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, author of the forthcoming book called What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (the Kindle edition can be found here). Dr. Balcombe writes, "As a biologist who specializes in animal behavior and emotions, I’ve spent the past four years exploring the science on the inner lives of fishes. What I’ve uncovered indicates that we grossly underestimate these fabulously diverse marine vertebrates. The accumulating evidence leads to an inescapable conclusion: Fishes think and feel. Because fishes inhabit vast, obscure habitats, science has only begun to explore below the surface of their private lives. They are not instinct-driven or machinelike. Their minds respond flexibly to different situations. They are not just things; they are sentient beings with lives that matter to them. A fish has a biography, not just a biology." He goes on to note that fishes make and use tools, hunt cooperatively, form social relationships that are reciprocally beneficial with other fishes, and experience stress. (For more on fishes please see "Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain," "Fish Feel Pain: Let's Get Over it and Do Something About It," and links therein. The topic of fish sentience was covered in the journal Animal Sentience in a series of essays. For more on fish feelings please go to http://fishfeel.org.)

Dr. Balcombe concludes, "As innovative research reveals new facets of the private lives of fishes, I’m hopeful that perceptions will change and we’ll show them more mercy. The simplest way to help fishes is to reduce our consumption of them and to source what we do eat from suppliers that adhere to animal welfare standards. As the oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who, like me, no longer eats fish, says: 'The ocean has given us so much for so long; it’s time for us to return the favor.'”

New research in the field of cognitive ethology is a paradigm shifter and a call for action on behalf of other animals: Overcoming "knowledge gaps" and "empathy gaps"

Would you do it to your dog? There's surely a lot going on in the field of cognitive ethology and it's essential to use what we know on the animals' behalf. Unfortunately, there are still substantial "knowledge gaps" and "empathy gaps" and what we know doesn't make its way into legislation protecting other animals. I often asked people something like, "Would you do it to your dog?" when considering the heinous ways in which other animals are routinely treated. Many are shocked to hear this question and I then gently note that other animals aren't any less sentient than our household companions, and that they don't suffer less than dogs or other common companion animals. Surely, they shouldn't be used as breeding machines to satisfy some humans' taste for individuals who meet breed standards and the killing of those dogs who don't. 

I'm thrilled to see the New York Times and many other popular media outlets considering the latest scientific research that shows just how fascinating other animals really are, and that they truly are deeply emotional beings whom we need to respect for who they truly are and what they feel. Claiming, for example, that fish feel, is not embellishing them, but rather relying on solid scientific research and honoring them for who they are. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)