Can we make fish happy?


Andy, Opie, Gomer, and Aunt Bee.

We’re trying to give our rescued fish the best possible life, but I’m at a loss. We just bought a bigger fish tank for the third time in as many years. We also upgraded the filter yet again (buying a canister filter we can place on the floor so they don’t have to listen to the constant hum of the motor). We have a note in the entryway reminding us to greet the fish when we come into the room. And I talk to them constantly.

I clean their tank regularly and when I do, I spend time petting them which they seem to like. And every night, they get shelled, organic peas as a treat. Despite this, they seem so: bored. And no matter how big the tank is, it still seems zoo-like. In fact, the Buenos Aires Zoo just closed and is releasing all animals to sanctuaries saying that “captivity is degrading.”

Don’t get me wrong, rescue is vital for fish and these little guys were going to die. Back in 2014, a kid at my daughter’s school used them as part of an “art project.” The condition these little guys were kept in was pretty heartbreaking (and dangerous). She complained to school officials, learned they had no plans for them after the project was done except to throw them away, and so of course we took them home. (I also met with the head of the school to discuss instituting a “no animals” policy for “art” at the school to which they agreed.) Like many rescued animals, we have a duty to care for them when they are in need and we are doing the best we can.

In a New York Times piece and in her new book, Run, Spot, Run, bioethicist Jessica Pierce vehemently objects to “removing animals from their wild homes and making pets out of them (e.g., collecting frogs or tadpoles from a nearby lake),” something I absolutely agree with. She also cautions against “the keeping of small animals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish in tiny cages,” arguing that the best we can do for many of these creatures is a life of “controlled deprivation.” Is she right there, too?

The science seems to support her conclusion. Numerous studies have concluded that “captive conditions frequently result in stress, morbidity and premature mortality,” including “in invertebrates (Smith 1991; Elwood 2011; Crook 2013), fishes (Wabnitz et al. 2003; Livengood and Chapman 2007; Volpato 2009); Meijboom and Bovenkerk 2013), amphibians (DPI 2006; Arena et al. 2012), reptiles (Warwick 1995; Kreger 2002; Toland et al. 2012; Warwick et al. 2013), birds (Mather 2001; Engebretson 2006; Meehan and Mench 2008; van Zeeland et al. 2009), and mammals (Hediger 1955; Hutchins et al. 1984; Broom and Johnson 1993; Morgan and Tromberg 2007; Soulsby et al. 2009).”

Moreover, in What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins, Jonathan Balcombe writes that, “fish have a conscious awareness — or ‘sentience’ — that allows them to experience pain, recognize individual humans and have memory:”  He goes on to say that, “There’s a lot of change that would be needed to reflect an improvement in our relationship with fishes.”

I agree, but short of building a pond which we cannot do because we do not own our home and finding one which we have not had luck doing, what more can we do to make them happy?

I ask this in earnest.

And any advice would be most welcome.


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