We don’t often think of fish when we talk about animal welfare or the treatment of animals we keep as pets, eat or use in experiments, but research coming out this month in the journal Animal Cognition is urging us to reconsider seeing fish as less intelligent or complex than other animals who often take the spotlight.
Fish biologist Culum Brown, who is a professor at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, has taken the scientific approach to get us to appreciate fish in “Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics,” writing that, “Part of the problem is the large gap between people’s perception of fish intelligence and the scientific reality.”
Brown’s research for this paper was funded by Farm Sanctuary as part of its Someone, Not Something project, which aims at getting us to see animals used in agriculture as individuals, not commodities. While it’s easier to see and relate with the unique personalities of farm animals, or empathize with their suffering, fish seem to be another realm altogether.
Even though they’re kept as pets, held in aquariums, farmed, used in scientific research and are an extensive source of food, their treatment hasn’t made it into mainstream discussions about their welfare or raised the level of concern other animals are getting. After reviewing hundreds of research papers that examined areas ranging from the cognitive abilities of fish and their ability to feel pain, Brown makes a compelling case about why we need to include fish in our “moral circle.”
With interesting examples, he concludes that fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates, including primates, and that their brains are more similar to our own than we previously thought.
They have long-term memories, cooperate with each other, recognize themselves and others, develop complex traditions and can perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously. They also show traits that were once thought to be distinctly human, including making use of tools and using different sides of their brains to analyze information. Sarasins minnows, for example, look at familiar individuals with their left eye and use their right eye to view unfamiliar individuals.
Fish also use the same methods to count quantities that we do and can see as well as us, but have been found to fall for optical illusions, which means they’re making assumptions about what they’re seeing that’s likely based in part on their past experiences.
Fish can also learn to avoid things they don’t like and will keep that information for long periods. Pike that have been hooked have been found to shy away from them for over a year. Rainbowfish, who were taught to swim through a hole in a net took just five runs to figure out the location of the escape route. When tested almost a year later, they still remembered how to escape even though they had not seen the net in the meantime.
Whether or not they feel pain is a question that will raise issues for industries that use fish, including fishing and research, but Brown told Popular Science that he takes the position that having the same neurological system as other vertebrates means they do feel it in a way that we can relate to, in the way we feel empathy for companion animals and other species who are experiencing it.
While he’s not pushing to get people to stop eating fish, Brown is supporting a change of attitude that will lead to improvements in the way we treat them that are on par with other animals.
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