A fishy campaign

PETA’s attempt to rebrand fish as ‘sea kittens’ takes anthropomorphism to an unfathomable new low.

Stuart Derbyshire

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Topics Politics

It seems the message about fish being caring, fun-loving little tykes who feel pain and have complex personalities just isn’t getting through. I like to think that is because the message is correctly regarded by most people as absurd. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, believe that we continue to catch and eat fish because they are inappropriately named ‘fish’ (1). Silly us, calling fish fish. PETA suggest the name ‘sea kittens’ as more apt to highlight the cuddly virtues of the creatures formerly known as fish (2).

Many commentators have noted that PETA’s proposal is preposterous and sets a potentially dangerous precedent (3). If the idea catches on, we might soon be referring to pigs as ‘pink land clouds’, trees might become ‘land coral’, and so on. It could get awfully confusing – imagine arriving in the rainforest wearing scuba gear. And masses of textbooks on species and fauna will have to be reissued.

Probably PETA do not really expect that we will soon be referring to fish as ‘sea kittens’ – instead they probably think they are placing a funny gloss on to what they see as established scientific facts. In one of their fact sheets, PETA cite evidence that fish can find their way around using landmarks and patterns of light and sounds; that they have long memories and can tell the time of day; that they can escape from a fishing net and follow other fish who are escaping; that they talk to one another with squeals, like to rub one another, feel pain, build nests, use tools, engage in acts of manipulation, play ‘Mr Mom’, and tend to their gardens (4). I have not made any of this up.

Normally I wouldn’t overly emphasise neural anatomy to answer questions of psychology, but with fish it is just too tempting. An average fish brain is about the size of your thumb and if you place your thumb next to your head you can note the discrepancy. Although I think the role of the brain in dictating human psychology is grossly overstated, I do recognise that what we are is in some way intimately related to what is between our ears. The sheer lack of brains in fish should make anyone suspicious of claims that fish keep gardens, use tools, talk to one another, and so on.

PETA’s fact sheet is a mix of scientific evidence, some reasonable interpretation and a not-inconsiderable amount of lunacy. But it is not always clear where interpretation stops and lunacy begins. Take the idea that fish feel pain. This follows the observation that cells known to produce pain in humans are also present, in a somewhat different form and pattern, in fish (5). It has also been noted that fish brains contain cells that respond to strong pressure and unpleasant chemicals injected in and around the fish mouth (6). Based on these undeniable physical facts about fish, some scientists have inferred that fish can feel pain.

Translating physical facts into mental experience, however, is fraught with danger. There might be many good reasons why a fish could benefit from a physical signal to change direction, when, for example, swimming into a chemically dangerous environment. But that doesn’t mean the fish will think: ‘Ouch, ow, ahh, get me out of here!’

Even the possibility of fish merely having a detection system for those kinds of dangers, however, is highly contentious. As Jim Rose has pointed out in an essay on anthropomorphism, fish spend their lives at great depths that produce tremendous pressure; they endure countless diseases and eat food covered with spindles and sharp edges (7). If fish really do have cells that respond to the kinds of dangers we associate with pain, then those cells would either be constantly firing in the fish or would be beaten into silence by abundant stimulation. Either way, the cells would not be very useful, so quite probably they do something other than signal danger, let alone produce pain, for the fish.

Renaming fish as ‘sea kittens’ would, of course, represent a new low in lunatic interpretation of fish, but I am fairly optimistic that PETA’s efforts will fail. My four-year-old daughter knows that fish do not actually have fingers, even though she eats fish fingers, and my six-year-old knows that catfish are not actual underwater cats. Similarly, renaming fish as ‘sea kittens’ will no more result in everyone thinking of fish as cute and cuddly than it will encourage us to dip ‘land kittens’ in batter and eat them deep-fried with chips.

Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Previously on spiked

Stuart Derbyshire argued that while animal behaviour can look intelligent, that doesn’t mean it is. Patrick West rejected a theory that fish are ‘steeped’ in social intelligence and cultural traditions as codswallop. Josie Appleton defended fur. James Panton stood up for animal research. Helene Guldberg urged us to stop weeping over whaling. Or read more at spiked issue Animals.

(1) See the Save the Sea Kittens campaign on PETA’s website.

(2) Fish? No, they’re ‘sea kittens’, Guardian, 14 January 2009

(3) Sea Kittens taste just like chicken, Missoulian, 14 January; Save the sea kittens?, Ghair Rhydd, Issue 880;Sea kittens? Why not sea biscuits?, Guardian, 14 January 2009

(4) The hidden lives of fish, Fishinghurts.com

(5) Do fishes have nociceptors? Evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system, by LU Sneddon, VA Braithwaite and MJ Gentle, 2003 (PDF)

(6) ‘Mechanoreceptive and nociceptive responses in the central nervous system of goldfish (Carassius auratus) and trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)’, by R Dunlop and P Laming P, 2005

(7) Anthropomorphism and ‘mental welfare’ of fishes, by JD Rose JD, 2007 (PDF)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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