I’ve inherited an aquarium, for the second time. The first time it was a gift when a friend’s husband passed away…she needed to re-home the fish and, knowing my younger son had a keen interest in them, she gave the tank to me. My son however, had unexpectedly acquired a lovely little flat and moved out. Which left me with a huge aquarium of which the dog did not approve.
The dog too was a recent acquisition at that time. My elder son had decided an assistance dog might be a good idea, so Ani had come into our lives. He too had found a lovely home and moved out, but the small dog had remained with me. You may detect a pattern developing here. My younger son, rather liking the tank and in the interests of appeasing the confused canine (who thought it her duty to protect me from the fish) adopted the aquarium and took it home, leaving me fishless. Meanwhile, my elder son created a huge pond for me to
clean enjoy at his new home.
It should, then, have come as no surprise that when I finally moved out of the old place and into my younger son’s little flat, while he and his family went on to pastures new, the aquarium remained behind. Five years on, and although there are a number of fish in the tank, most of its original occupants have departed for celestial seas; only two of them are still with us. One is a small sucker fish whose presence I am aware of but who I have never really seen, the other is Mad Fish.
Mad Fish was a bit of a mystery. My son thought he might be some kind of tetra, but was not at all sure. There had been two, but one had died, leaving the other fish on his own. He was referred to as Mad Fish not as some vague insult, but because his behaviour was very, very strange; he spent almost all his time swimming in circles with his nose to the glass, particularly at night. “I think he’s lonely,” my son had said. “Missing his mate.” I watched him for a couple of weeks while, at the same time, learning about the various fish, how to look after them and trying to identify Mad Fish’s species. I learned a bit about fish behaviour and, when I finally found out what Mad Fish was, I began to think my son was right.
He’s a Buenos Aires Tetra… which meant nothing to me, so I looked them up. They swim in shoals… maybe Mad Fish was trying to be a shoal with his reflection? Was he lonely? And was that just instinct… or emotion? Do fish have emotions? My relationship with the fish in the pond certainly makes me think so… but I looked up the science of if too.
Until very recently, we didn’t even know for certain whether fish felt pain, let alone had emotions. It was discovered that they had a nervous system equipped to feel pain. Then came the next question… in order to suffer from pain, rather than simply react to it from self-preservation, there would need to be a level of consciousness. They experimented some more and found that fish could learn. Well, I could have told them that… Simon, the bubble blowing koi and his cohorts, have learned exactly how to get me to feed them whenever they choose. And anyway, it’s on Youtube… just look up ‘fish playing football’.
Still, that wasn’t good enough for the scientists, so they had to go for the labyrinth solving techniques…and found that fish can solve complex tasks, plan, co-operate and use faculties human beings don’t begin to develop until they are four years old. Which, according to the scientists’ criteria, means they have not only a level of intelligence, but also of self-awareness… consciousness. And science has a hard time explaining the essence of human consciouness, let alone that of creatures we have, for so long considered the epitome of mindlessness.
Consciousness and the ability to be aware…of joy and suffering, of pain and belonging… it is something we share with so many creatures in this world, many of whom were considered ‘dumb animals’ until so recently. Science does not know where consciousness comes from, nor how it arises…nor how far consciousness may extend into the natural world. We do not have the language to communicate with most of our world, we can only observe. Lives that are so very different from our own may well be showing levels of consciousness we simply cannot see or understand, but we cannot dismiss, simply because we do not see.
Do fish have feelings? If they are self-aware, then it would seem possible and must make us begin to question our attitude towards them and their treatment at our hands. After watching Mad Fish today, I, for one, am in no doubt.
I managed to find a local supplier of Buenos Aires Tetra and introduced a tiny shoal to the tank. I’m not ashamed to say I cried watching Mad Fish’s reaction. He stopped, mid dash… then dived across the tank, swimming in figures of eight through the shoal, over and over again at top speed. They followed him around the tank for a couple of hours, nose to tail. He is definitely the top fish… and a happy one. Now, they are a shoal… and he hasn’t swum in circles or looked at his reflection once. He is not alone, he belongs… and it has changed his behaviour completely. I wonder how many people suffer that kind of emotional isolation…and what would happen if we all felt that sense of kinship and that we truly belonged to the human family…and the greater family of Life.