The tale of a fish

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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.

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30 thoughts on “The tale of a fish

  1. I was busy reading a magazine in Smiths, as you do, and there was an article about fish feeling pain and suffering. It said, ‘Have you ever seen a fish struggling when it’s been caught on a line?’
    Annoyingly I’d bought some delicious plaice for tea. It looked rather unappetising on the plate and I didn’t feel like eating it. Oddly, although I’d not told my partner about the magazine article, he didn’t want the plaice either. We never ate fish again.

    However, I am sure Mad Fish is a happy fish now he has some Tetra pals and appreciates your thoughtful gesture. 🐠


    1. Mad Fish does indeed seem happy. He’s rather elderly now, but he won’t be alone.

      Many do not accept that fish can suffer…many don’t believe or know that they can feel pain at all. The industrial fishing methods we use are not acceptable if they do.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A very moving post Sue. Gives me much to ponder. The analogy makes it seems so simple…company, belonging, community, friendship…indeed I believe there are many human beings suffering for want of these blessings… Need to reflect. Thanks for sharing this 🙂 And thanks for caring, and responding to the beings all around you – human and the rest! Love, Harula xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fellow human or fish, if you become aware of a problem… you either try to help…or not. I don’t know that we can really differentiate between lives in some heirarchical way, as if one has more value than another. x

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Such a lovely thing to do, many people wouldn’t have noticed, or cared. Pity we don’t have shops with human shoals, we could certainly use some! And I know it wouldn’t work, I’m just being daft this morning!


  4. I got the same ‘something’ in my eye that Running Elk experienced. Wow. What a powerful post with powerful questions. The most beautiful part of this post is that you found a powerful answer. You dug deep, you cared about this other being, this creature, and found that he/she is not that different from you, and all of us. Wow.


    1. Life is an undefinable gift.. I don’t think you can place more value on one manifestation of it than on another. It is only empathy and motion that makes the difference in how we look at them. The fish was lonely… now he isn’t 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My son left me a tank. 50 gallons and eventually, there were but two remaining (huge) angel fish and one absolutely enormous catfish. We had to sell the catfish because he was too big for the tank and eventually, one of the angel fish died. Possibly of old age. Does anyone know the natural lifespan of tropical freshwater fish? The other one passed on, too, after which the tank left.

    But of course, there were the two dogs, Amber and Bishop, both of whom have now passed. I didn’t mind the dogs, but the dogs spent a full year wondering where their peeps had gone.

    And all the other “stuff” in closets, basement, and attic? We are keeping it in case someone ever wants it.

    I thought it was just our kids. I guess not.


    1. No, not just yours 🙂 You should have seen the stuff that was ‘stored’ i.e.forgotten, in my loft and cupboards when I moved 🙂
      There’s an angelfish in this tank too… I gather they can live for a decade or so. It is big enough, but the pleco is getting very big… and may have to go the way of your catfish one day.


  6. That is such a beautiful story! I’m so happy for Mad Fish. I’m glad he had such a caring human guardian angel watching over him. Well done Sue! 😚💕 PS does that mean you will have to rename him?


    1. It was Alex that worried first… I was just lucky to be able to identify him and find someone who had some more. And no, I won’t rename him… or her… they all appear to be loopy. Just not chasing shadows.


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