When the two year old pulled the silvery gold fish out of the pond to the cheers of her five and seven year old siblings, parents, and grandmother, I shuddered involuntarily.
The young perch impaled by sharp hook was gasping for oxygen as the adults allowed the fish to hang helplessly while pictures were taken. Afterwards the group watched the fish flounder, still gasping, on the bottom of the boat. The toddler was applauded for her catch, while the terrified fish flipped over and over attempting to escape back into the water. It takes a while for a beached fish to die a death of asphyxiation.
I called out; “Please don’t let the fish suffer – knock it out to put it out of its misery.” The two adults standing with me on the dock along with the three adults in the boat ignored my plea.
I was invisible.
Just like the fish.
I repeated my respectful request twice. When it became obvious that no one was listening, I turned, and said to no one in particular, “I’m leaving” as I walked off the dock. The fish was still struggling for breath. It takes a while for a beached fish to die a death of asphyxiation.
The day went black. Walking home from the pond I reflected upon the scene that I had just witnessed. Two generations of adults had just passed on a lie to a third generation of youngsters. Animals don’t suffer; fish have no feelings.
Even though scientists now know that fish do have feelings and most certainly feel pain – all animals are sentient – these truths are not taught in elementary schools or modeled by adults. Most people who have access to this information pay no attention.
It is appalling to me that so few seem to have the slightest interest in breaking a chain of beliefs that keeps humans distanced from the rest of nature. But worst of all is the astonishing lack of empathy. How exactly does one ignore the obvious: that a fish gasping for oxygen is obviously in trouble and terrified by what its experiencing? In today’s world people seem to be so separated from experiential reality that they are capable of overriding their senses as well as what they witness with their own eyes.
I remember catching my first trout with my grandmother who was a skilled fly fisherwoman. I was eight years old. After helping a small child reel in her first fish, my grandmother deftly extricated it from the hook and killed it immediately with a stone. Afterwards, she fried the small fish in a pan for me to eat, praising me for my accomplishment.
Although I never became a fisherwoman except in the mythical sense, exploring the depths of my unconscious self (and that of others), I did marry a fisherman who thought me quite crazy when I insisted upon killing each fish that we caught for our dinner.
I still eat fish, as well as other meat believing that my attitude towards taking life is more important than what I eat. In my way of thinking it is critical to acknowledge sentience so that we don’t let animals suffer needlessly, and so that it becomes natural to give thanks for the lives of every plant and animal as Indigenous peoples once did. We are all part of an immense food chain that supports all living things by taking life to give life.
After my children left home I discovered my vocation, becoming a passionate teacher, naturalist, and writer, one who continues to advocate for all animate human and non–human beings.
Today, in my seventies, after writing literally thousands of nature articles and two books on the subject I am losing access to hope. In our thoroughly mechanized virtual reality, there is no room for Life to exist in all of its myriad forms.
Perhaps that’s why extinction of all life forms is looming over our collective horizon. Amazingly, humans have for the most part managed to ignore that extinction extends to all species. We may kill off the insects, birds, fish, and frogs first but eventually we too will succumb.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Northern New Mexico.