Let me say at the top that I like PETA, the animal rights organization. I’m not card-carrying, but if one is a dog owner it’s only logical you’d have some amount of concern about how other animals are treated. I like to think that the more you had organizations predicated on making us behave more humanely, in any regard, the more we would behave humanely. In my dream, “The Humane Society” would not only mean care for stray pets, it would become a moniker for the American people themselves. (CUE MUSIC/ LAUNCH FIREWORKS)
However there’s also logical tendency to regard human rights issues as having precedence over, say, the pain that fish suffer. That’s right, fish pain. Page one of last Saturday’s LA Times. Fish are abused. Fish suffer when they are caught for us to eat. Fish are not footballs. (Did you hear that, Detroit Lions…?)
It’s rational to assume that any creature that is slaughtered for us to eat, suffers. Even if we made the beef industry (criminally energy inefficient to begin with) as humane as we could, cows would still suffer the humiliation of being food. Forget college and that dream of a retirement grazing area all your own; dude, you’re headed to Burger King. It would also be great if El Pollo Loco were using their TV ads to debate the practices involved in chicken meat production rather than how truly “grilled” the new KFC chicken is.
But there’s no question in my mind that the LA Times plants a story about the treatment of fish at the hands of fish vendors and fishermen on its front page not because it feels the issue competes evenly with the elections in Iran, but because the Times knows it will provoke readers to cluck their tongues. And to me, that is yet one more insult to fish that are already caught and killed, gutted like a fish (sorry!), thrown around at fish markets for the amusement of tourists… and ultimately breaded and frozen by the insensitive and brutish Mrs. Paul.
What specifically stirred PETA to plan protests was the announcement that an upcoming convention of veterinarians would feature a demonstration of the fish-tossing popularized at the Seattle Fish Market. PETA’s argument: Would tourists and callous veterinarians be as amused if, instead of fish, dead kittens or gutted livestock were being hurled over their heads? It’s at this point that I fear I’m somehow giving away a pitch for a new reality show. Worse, there’s no question the host would be Howie Mandell.
I love PETA’s position on this, because the issue is many-layered and in sorting through it you’d get in touch with a lot of dichotomous stuff about civilization. Tropical fish in a tank? Well cared for and even loved. Chunk of halibut on your plate? Loved, but only with that special creamy sauce. Cows on TV touting California Cheese? Witty with lots of personality. Cows that become beef? See the film “Food, Inc.” at your local theater. Then the dialogue might shift over to stuff like making whales jump and perform, elephants at the circus, the idiotic notion that dolphins in a hotel swimming pool jail want to be petted and “experienced” by you and your kids, the large number of Chihuahua dogs currently in animal shelters because the owners got bored two weeks after seeing the talking Chihuahuas movie, and something I personally find horrific… cats made to wear Santa hats at Christmas.
The litany of problems and painful ironies in our real-world relationship with animals is endless. But our attention to those indignities is often limited by the degree to which we bond with the critter in question. I’ll put it bluntly: Fish don’t look like us. (Well, there was that one kid in fifth grade…) We’re quicker to help the more anthropomorphic victims in the animal kingdom than we are creatures that seem further removed from us. Primates, penguins, dolphins with that winning smile… hel-looo, donations. Fish rights for a grouper… tough sell.
My hope is that as PETA presses for better treatment for fish, attention will spread to the environment fish must live in. Way before they’re tossed around at markets, fish have the larger problem of their waters becoming global toilets. You yourself may have been thrown around by some guys in Seattle, but I’ll bet you’re not passing effluent mercury and estrogen through your body tissue with every breath you take. Or swimming under miles and miles of floating garbage. Or finding an oil drilling platform in your front or back yard.
And I sense an emerging mentality about fish production that suggests we’re helpless in stopping the oceans from turning into chemical puke, so we’ll just farm our fish in man-made ponds. Much as a fish farm might mean less stress on fish, with no tossing or violent catching methods, perhaps a richer social life without interruptions by predators… destroying their natural habits and resigning ourselves to farming them, no matter how humane, will not be evidence of progress.