Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Do Fish Count As Animals?

by Sherry F. Colb

First, a bit of self-promotion:  I spoke with Erin Red for her podcast, Red Radio, and you can listen to it here, if you like.

Now, to the topic at hand.  I realize that the title of this post will sound strange to many people.  Of course fish "count" as animals.  They are not, after all, plants, fungi, or minerals, right?  My question, however, arises from an observation that I have made as a vegan:  Many people do not consider fish to be "animals" and thus believe that eating fish might be consistent with being vegan.

At a dinner one evening, for example, one of the people with whom I was dining asked me what "vegan" means.  I explained that it means that I choose not to consume animal products, including dairy and eggs (as well as wool and leather).  She then asked what's wrong with dairy and eggs, wondering whether I believe that life begins at conception when it comes to a newly fertilized chicken egg.  At that point, I recommended my book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, because I have an entire chapter dedicated to dispelling the pervasive myth that eggs and dairy are slaughter-free products. Stated very briefly, slaughter and cruelty are not simply ubiquitous in the dairy and egg industries (which they are) but inherent in even the smallest-scale dairy and egg operations.

After we got that squared away, my dinner companion continued, "Well, fish don't count, right?"  Her question made me realize that the whole category of "pescatarian" is premised on the idea that fish do not count.  While animal slaughter, at least in the United States, is conducted behind closed doors, the slaughter of fish through impaling and subsequent suffocation or beating is considered not just a legitimate recreational activity but a peaceful activity.  People talk about going fishing -- the violent killing of fishes -- in the way they might talk about meditating, deep-breathing, or other relaxation exercises that help us peacefully center ourselves.  I find this disturbing but also perplexing.

I realize that culture and repetition can accustom people to just about anything.  After all, I used to consume animal flesh and secretions, and I too ate fish, which was the moral equivalent of my slaughtering these beings myself -- I just hired other people to do it by purchasing their dead bodies at a store or a restaurant.  Nonetheless, I am still struck by the degree of numbing that accompanies discussions of fish consumption.  Even friends of mine who know that I am vegan have wondered whether I might not have a firm position on the consumption of fishes, animals who make up a majority of the many billions of animals slaughtered for food every year.

I could speculate on why people regard fishes as non-animals.  Perhaps it is because fishes do not look like us and are cold-blooded (which we may be converting from a metaphor to a normative statement).   Maybe it is because they are not "cute."  Sometimes I wonder whether it is, at least for Jewish non-vegans, the fact that religious law considers the flesh of fishes to be "pareve," neither dairy nor "meat" and thus permissible at any meal.  Regardless of why people dismiss the slaughter of fishes, I think it is worth remembering that the best science (not to mention direct observation) confirms that fish are sentient creatures.  That is, they experience the world around them and suffer when we commit violence against them. I have here assembled some quotations from knowledgeable people to help refute the ignorant notion that fishes are indifferent to what we do to them.

"Anatomical, pharmacological and behavioral data suggest that effective states of pain, fear and stress are likely to be experienced by fish in similar ways as tetrapods [amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals]." -- Can Fish Suffer?  K.P. Chandroo, I.J.H. Duncan, R.D. Moccia; Applied Animal Behavior Science, 2004.

"A powerful portfolio of physiological and behavioural evidence now exists to support the case that fish feel pain and that this feeling matters.  In the face of such evidence, any argument to the contrary based on the claim that fish 'do not have the right sort of brain' can no longer be called scientific.  It is just obstinate." -- John Webster, emeritus professor at the University of Bristol, Does she have feelings too?  The Telegraph, March 2, 2005

The Royal Society, the United Kingdom's independent academy of science, published "conclusive evidence indicating pain perception in fish," concluding that pain produced "profound behavioural and physiological changes in fish over a prolonged period of time, comparable to those in higher mammals," Do fishes have nociceptors?  Proceedings of the Royal Society B; Biological Sciences, June 7, 2003

"In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of 'higher' vertebrates, including non-human primates.  Best of all, given the central place memory plays in intelligence and social structures, fish not only recognize individuals but can also keep track of complex social relationships."  -- Culum Brown (Associate Professor, Macquarie University), Not Just a Pretty Face, New Scientist, June 12, 2004

"I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals -- and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies." -- Victoria Braithwaite, Do Fish Feel Pain? (p. 153), 2010

"The scientific literature is quite clear.  Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals ... in animal welfare terms, you have to put fishing in the same category as hunting."  -- Dr. Donald Broom, Professor of Animal Welfare at Cambridge University, Daily Telegraph, October 19, 1995

"I wouldn't deliberately eat a grouper any more than I'd eat a cocker spaniel.  They're so good-natured, so curious.  You know, fish are sensitive, they have personalities, they hurt when they're wounded."  -- Dr. Sylvia Earle, then chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Shag from Brookline said...

Veganism evolves in the manner of originalism into a living diet, beyond veggies, fruits and other once living plants, when necessary. Is there pure veganism in the manner of pure libertarians?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Shag: Sherry's book has a chapter explaining that it's nearly impossible to be fully vegan in our society unless one lives completely off the grid. Automobile tires contain animal products, as do various industrial materials, etc. Moreover, most plant agriculture utilizes the waste of farmed animals as fertilizer. So-called "veganic" farming is possible (and human waste could be used as a substitute for animal waste in a future world without direct demand for farming captive animals), but so long as there is so much animal agriculture, simple economics makes animal waste a very cheap fertilizer. The point of the chapter is that the best should not be the enemy of the good--that veganism is a philosophy that aims to minimize harm to sentient beings, recognizing that one could always do better.

Shag from Brookline said...

And should sentient beings have full range? Consider horses in the wild. Should domesticated animals be "fixed" as is the case with dogs and cats as pets? When I read Peter Singer, I nod in agreement. But then reality sets in. Balancing is of course important. But does capitalism - and especially globalization - permit for appropriate balancing? Yes, one could always do better, but that may complicate survival. What might a vegan world evolve into, including economically and politically? Might it address global warming? And might the vegan philosophy segue into the religious fold in the western world, leading to proselytizing? I was raised on the Mediterranean Diet going back to 1930 well before that Diet was popularized. It provides a balance, at least for me. And I am familiar with similar Asian cultural diets using less meats for flavoring (rather than artificial flavorings that may be in vogue today). But I'm not proselytizing.

Shag from Brookline said...

By the way, on the subject of fish, I used to enjoy fishing and its challenges, especially fresh water fishing. I enjoyed cooking and eating freshly caught fish. But I eventually lost the desire to fish, which I attributed to having lost the "killer instinct." I never would go hunting as a sport, as early on I was influenced by Bambi. Fishing no longer became sporting for me. But I enjoy eating fresh fish. It's complicated for humans. Imagine if it were determined that harvesting plants was painful to the plants.

Joe said...

I think fish count and though it is somewhat of a difficult question for some people, my question would go down the next level. Do shrimp, scallops, mussels and the like count? Vegans say "yes" but (putting aside lobsters, which people often think of as a special case), I think it's harder than fish.

The veganism as a philosophy is one that appeals to me. I found Victoria Moran's "Compassion the Ultimate Ethic: An Exploration of Veganism" helpful.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I agree with Joe that bivalves and some other shellfish may not be sentient and thus, present a closer case. For myself, I choose not to eat them based on a number of principles: (1) They are typically harvested in ways that produce a great deal of sentient bycatch; (2) given their role in cleansing water, they are often unhealthy to consume as they concentrate pollutants; and (3) I like to err on the side of avoiding rather than consuming. But I agree that others with similar values might reach other conclusions.

A propos of Shag's query re plants, that too is a chapter in Sherry's book. The short answer is that there's no evidence that plants are sentient, but if it were to turn out that they were, one would still minimize harm by eating plants rather than the animals that eat plants, because of the energy loss that occurs as one goes up the food chain. In other words, eating plants rather than eating animals who eat plants is a way of sparing more plants.

Shag from Brookline said...

"In other words, eating plants rather than eating animals who eat plants is a way of sparing more plants."

raises the question of what to do with animals that eat plants so that they don't eat plants in competition with humans. I'm thinking of the words to "Home on the Range" and the impact of Manifest Destiny.

David Ricardo said...

Since beginning to follow the Vegan discussions on this Forum I have been perplexed about the proper response to the question posed in the title of Ms. Kolb’s book. After considerable thought I believe I now have the definitive answer to the rhetorical(?) question of “Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger (or Steak or Fish or Lobster or Omelet or ____ ”.

Actually there are two possible answers, your choice.

Answer 1: Yes

Answer 2: No,

But with this follow up.

Mind if I replace my current friend and dining companion with someone else, someone who is more considerate and more understanding of my beliefs and lifestyle than my current one and who is not so incredibly stupid and insensitive that they would act in such a boorish way as to even ask such a question while dining with me.

Personally I prefer answer (2) and its follow up, but then Ms. Kolb may be a nicer person than I am, most people are, and so prefer answer (1).

There, that should settle it.

And yes, Ms. Kolb’s passion and ability to communicate her beliefs both on this Forum and in her other writings are admirable and hopefully the question in the title to her book is rhetorical and did not have happen. Is that correct, a number of us have been curious since we were first made aware of the title.

David Ricardo said...

Note: Having written previously about Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb in another place and putting that name into spell check the computer, not me, changed the name of the author of this post.

I apologize.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Hi Dismal Political Economist. Sorry for the belated nature of my reply. I found your Answer 2 quite amusing, so thank you for that. And yes, people do ask me whether I mind if they order non-vegan food. For better or worse, none of the questions in the chapters of the book is purely hypothetical in nature...

David Ricardo said...

Well thank you for your note! You should know that your book and other writings are influential and are moving myself and my family in your direction.

I am astounded that those questions, including your title are real experiences. What is wrong with people?

David R

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