Fish Tails: A Grandmother’s Legacy by Sara Wright

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.

Categories: animals, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, Ethics, Spirituality

Tags: , ,

6 replies

  1. This post brought back childhood memories of my father fishing in the summer. I remember my horror and fear at the fish’s death throes. I don’t remember what my father said or did. I do remember putting down forever a book by John Burroughs when he wrote of shooting a loon (for no reason) and remarked, purely as a point of observation, that the loon’s mate seemed distressed. He expressed no remorse for what he had done, no empathy for the surviving loon’s grief. I am so sorry to hear that people today continue to be oblivious to the sentience and suffering of our fellow beings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Elizabeth… this distancing from our fellow beings continuously shocks me – it’s not as if the research on animal sentience isn’t out there – it is – but it never makes headlines – and most people don’t even trust their own senses. Instead they believe the good old boy “experts.”

      There just isn’t any place to go.


  2. Brava! Yes, fish and other furry, finned, feathered, and scaled beings to have feelings. Why don’t people understand this? Is denial of their ability to, say, feel pain a teaching passed down by so-called holy men and gullible people who believe them? How sad.

    I caught a fish once. I was about 13 years old and my family was on vacation in Michigan to visit relatives. My mother’s cousin (he was a dancer on whom I had a huge crush) took us fishing, and I caught a trout. He killed it and fried it for me to eat for supper.

    Thanks for writing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Barbara… i don’t think this is about understanding. I think its about living in virtual reality and an inability to trust our senses…Patriarchy the dis-embodied dark man holds sway.

    I’m glad you have a fish story too.


  4. Thank you for sharing.

    I recently read two books that shifted my perception of what has happened to our sensitivity to the suffering of plants, animals, and the world of living more-than-humans around us. I used to think that, based upon what I’d heard and read until recently, that Western cultures had been distanced for thousands of years – because of patriarchy – from Life of Nature but then I read “The Medieval Vision” by Carolly Erickson and “The Death of Nature” by Carolyn Merchant and realized that most people (especially rural people) prior to the Scientific Revolution & Reformation were *intimately* related to and aware of the lives of other not-human beings. When magic and mysticism was banned, so with them went our relatedness to the living world we are part of. Such a complex topic … but I felt hopeful that many of us are consciously returning and moving toward *knowing* the sentience of all life and form; I somehow felt reassured.


  5. You are right. Until quite recently it was normal to attribute some sentience to non human beings – the scientific revolution put an end to that. Patriarchy rears its ugly head… And yes, there are some of us who are carrying awareness – but our whole system would collapse if we really started to make the necessary changes, and I don’t believe that is going to happen, sadly.


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