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April 2, 2006 9:03 PM   Subscribe

Is it cruel to keep fish in an aquarium?

I have been thinking about keeping some fish in a tank, but it would be hard for me to enjoy them if I thought the fish were unhappy or frustrated.

I'm talking about a properly sized tank with filtration and plants and whatnot, not keeping a siamese fighting fish in a vase or anything.

PETA seem to think keeping fish at all is a bad move, but I'm not prepared to take everything PETA says at face value.

On the other hand, if you're thinking of letting me know that fish only have a three second memory so you can do what you like - don't bother :)

So, can fish be happy in a tank?
posted by backOfYourMind to Pets & Animals (24 answers total)
As long as you read up on the requirements of your particular fish, I don't think it's cruel.

Also, avoid fish that have been injected with dye.

Do as much to replicate the natural environment as possible. Use live plants, not plastic ones. Become familiar with the nitrogen cycle and how it affects your water.

Think big. A larger aquarium is easier to maintain. I have a 20 gallon now, but if I were to set up something new, I wouldn't go less than 55 gallons.
posted by Ostara at 9:13 PM on April 2, 2006

Probably about as happy as any domesticated animal. I guess most pet fish are raised in captivity, so they don't know anything else. How happy is a dog confined to a large yard and taken on walks frequently? How happy is a cat confined to an apartment or house?
posted by MadamM at 9:14 PM on April 2, 2006

I think all pet owners deal with this sort of guilt, to some extent. I have a dog, and when I'm at work, she stays home in her kennel area (a cage with a bed, a bathroom area, food + water, toys). Sometimes I feel bad, thinking, oh, what an awful boring life she must have, she must miss me, she must hate me for leaving her alone. Then I work from home for a day, and watch that lazy thing sleep contentedly for 20 hours out of the day on a blanket on the floor. So I try not to project how I would feel if I had her life onto her, because free of my guilt, she seems really happy.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:19 PM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

a properly sized tank

Not sure what you mean by that, but I have two tanks, a 50 gal and a 150 gal.

I only use the 50 for transfers and maintenance, because in that size tank the fish just kind of sit there like they know they are in storage.

In the 150 they have a lot more interesting behaviors: schooling, darting, curiosity, partnering, etc.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:20 PM on April 2, 2006

Best answer: I think that this whole question boils down to two things:

1) How stupid does a critter have to be before it's okay to cage it without you feeling like you're being cruel.

2) How stupid are fish?

I personally think that fish are pretty stupid, but I will readily admit that you can cause a fish stress, which is probably as close to "unhappiness" as you're going to get. Stress could be deprivation of cover, or materials for nesting, or being in the same tank as a predator, or in a neglected state (tank/water/filter-wise).

My personal guess is that if you take these issues into account, you can have a cruelty-free fish tank. Certainly all of the fish-loving people I know (including some people who get paid to do fish stuff) all, without exception, keep fish in tanks.
posted by popechunk at 9:28 PM on April 2, 2006

Best answer: I have a 55 gallon freshwater tank, and before I got it, I thought about this myself. My stance is that fish in an aquarium are protected from predators, fed regularly, and - if housed in the proper environment with appropriate tankmates - have just as good a chance at contentment as any fish in the wild.

I like my fishies a lot - they entertain me plenty. In return, I educated myself about their needs and provided them with a good and comfortable home. I only have small fish - my size tank would not be appropriate for the bigger species, IMHO. Overall, I think my fish are pretty happy. (By the way, I don't eat fish anymore, since I got my tank - how could I eat my pets? Getting my tank was the thing that pushed me over the edge into vegetarianism!)

On preview - my fish school too, and are very active. They weren't nearly as happy in my old 20 gallon, which is now my hospital tank.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:29 PM on April 2, 2006

Were I you, I would not take anything PETA says at face value.
posted by WCityMike at 9:36 PM on April 2, 2006

being in the same tank as a predator

This is something I've had to deal with with a large tank. Some fish (red eyed foils) grow way faster than others (various tetras) and even though they are community fish, once their tank mates become bite sized nature takes its course.

Now I have selected for very nervous small fish.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:43 PM on April 2, 2006

I'd think it would be more cruel to keep them out of an aquarium.

Anyway, given a tank of sufficient size and a filtration system with the capability to cycle a lot of water and still maintain temperature, salinity (for saltwater fish), etc., the conditions are probably much more salubrious for fish than conditions in the wild.
posted by jenovus at 9:45 PM on April 2, 2006

Best answer: If you're trying to keep fish with a clean conscience, you might consider that a lot of the tropical fish sold in petstores are caught in the wild, which could have a negative impact on their native ecosystems. Try to buy fish that have been bred in captivity.
posted by agropyron at 9:51 PM on April 2, 2006

Best answer: Personally as a fisheries biologist I think fish can be stressed or unstressed but I don't think they have "happy" or "unhappy", unless they are migratory species denied the chance ot migrate. Maybe. Fish are pretty witless and most species survive in the wild by sacrificing a lot of their members to predators or the environment. Like 99.9% of their members.

Get a big enough tank that they can do things like school, avoid keeping wildly different species in unsuitable habitat, avoid wild caught individuals or wild caught coral or other accouterments and avoid fish that will get too big for the tank or eat their tank-mates and you'll be a benevolent god.

I wouldn't worry too much about what PETA say, most people I know who are involved in that organization have a rather fleeting acquaintance with the precepts of ichthyology.
posted by fshgrl at 10:18 PM on April 2, 2006

Fish don't have a three-second memory. This has been conclusively proven by ... some guy at a university in Scotland. Don't make me track down a link.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:35 PM on April 2, 2006

A friend of mine is active in the "reefkeeper" community. They keep saltwater tanks which replicate a natural coral reef environment. These people are by and large very environmentally conscious and promote obtaining fish and corals that are bred in captivity, so as not to disturb wild ecosystems.

I read somewhere a claim that fish have a memory of 3 to 5 seconds, thus the other side of the tank is always a new adventure! (IANAMB)
posted by Tubes at 10:39 PM on April 2, 2006

Oh. Shouda previewed that post. Apparently my source didn't know about the Scottish study...
posted by Tubes at 10:42 PM on April 2, 2006

PETA are idiots. They also think dogs living with humans is bad because it's exploitative. It's been posited numerous times by many scholars that it's more than likely that dogs came to humans with the intent of co-habiting precisely because the relationship is exploitative (dogs helped humans hunt and dogs ate better as a result).

PETA have also put forth that all Pit Bulls should be euthanized because living with humans is exploitative of the dogs and not existing is better than being exploited.

PETA are idiots. I'm saying this as a vegetarian of 16 years.
posted by dobbs at 11:35 PM on April 2, 2006

Fish don't have a three-second memory. This has been conclusively proven by ... some guy at a university in Scotland. Don't make me track down a link.

Mythbusters did this one too.
posted by hob at 11:42 PM on April 2, 2006

The issue that prevents me from getting another fish tank is the problem of an extended power failure.
posted by frogmoses at 6:50 AM on April 3, 2006

Some fish in an aquarium can definitely be happy. Check out a group of clown loaches in a tank that's big enough for them to play in, and the question will be settled in your mind.

It might be cruel to keep PETA activists in a glass cage, but I'd want to see some studies before accepting any conclusions.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:29 AM on April 3, 2006

I don’t think PETA have ever actually made any of the claims/arguments dobbs suggests but either way it would seem odd to focus on their stance on pet dogs and/or the euthanasia of fighting breeds when we have their arguments concerning the ethical status of keeping fish in aquariums readily available to us.
posted by ed\26h at 8:11 AM on April 3, 2006

Another reason to get a larger fish tank: it's easier to keep the water chemistry balanced. Things can get out of whack really fast in a small tank, whereas with a larger tank, it just takes longer to shift. This makes it easier for you and less stressful for the fish.

A lot of people (myself included) started with a small tank, thinking that would be better for a beginner. I'd now argue that keeping a 5 or 10 gallon tank is just a bad idea, period, unless perhaps you're keeping a single betta in it or using it as a quarantine tank. Get the largest tank that your space/landlord/living companions will allow. (Do think hard before putting a big tank on an upstairs floor, and think about what you are putting in on. Those suckers get heavy.) I upgraded to a 55 gallon tank a year and a half ago, and my fish seem quite content.

Do be mindful of where you get your fish. Like any other animal, there are good breeders and unscrupulous breeders. I've had very good experiences buying fish online through Drs. Foster & Smith's LiveAquaria- their fish have always arrived healthy and hardy, and more importantly, they stayed that way.
posted by ambrosia at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2006

If you're worried about tank keeping being cruel, look into a fish that prefers to be left alone in their own territory and give them one! Puffers are like that, I kept one (thus the handle) for eight years... all alone in large tanks for most of them, once I realized how much happier he was alone. I obviously recommend Puffers, but there are other solitary fish who would thrive in such a situation.

The good thing about Puffers in particular is that they're smart and personable fish who generally like people better than other fish (many will even accept hand-feeding), so they'll let you know if they're happy or not. The caveat is that you need to stock the tank with reef critters like hermit crabs and snails for the mental and dental health of the Puffer, and be able to live with nature taking it's course once or twice a month.
posted by Pufferish at 10:47 AM on April 3, 2006

You sound like ethics mean something to you. Why slam PETA if their main concern is Ethical Treatment of Animals?

If ethics means not being cruel, being responsible and considerate, and caring for your pets as if their lives depended on it, then you can probably ethically care for fish and with a clear conscience.

It's an artificial environment, though, that big fish tank. One prolonged power outage and you have former pets, depending on the species, of course. Failing to plan for that potential is like letting your kids sleep upstairs with no smoke detectors or fire extinguishers, it seems. That's NOT ethical or conscientious.

I have heard it said that animals (other than us) live in the eternity of the instant, unaquainted with either the past or future. They learn about dying when they die, and they live in the world presented to them, as if they had no choice.

Boredom seems a human affliction, and if they are bored, isn't it a trade off against their enhanced safety and comfort as pets, compared to their brethren in the wild? I'd guess that if they are comfortable enough to breed, then that is the measure of whether they're unhappy or not.

Have fun with them and be kind.
posted by FauxScot at 11:18 AM on April 3, 2006

PETA have also put forth that all Pit Bulls should be euthanized

See for a good essay on the "racial profiling" of pit bulls, which are not, it seems, any more dangerous per se than many other breeds. They suffer, it seems from being the evildoers preferred dog rather than being evil themselves.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:26 PM on April 3, 2006

My general theory on pet keeping is to ask these questions:

Are the animals social and emotional needs being met?

Is the animal healthy and happy enough to breed successfully?

Will it live out or exceed the lifespan it would in the wild?

Is the wild population being depleted by pet keepers?

Are a lot of these animals being killed because nobody wants to keep them?

Are you willing to commit to meeting the above needs for the life of the animal? (sometimes longer than your life!)

I share my house with a cat and a school of african cichlids. I can answer those questions with a degree of certainty that suits my ethics.
posted by bug138 at 6:19 PM on April 3, 2006

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