Both Kyle and I are animal lovers. In fact, I've been a vegan for many years. So every since we started Fish School, we've hoped that our efforts would raise public awareness of fish sentience. When it comes down to it, most people don't believe fish have feelings. Many don't even think fish can feel pain. So they think nothing of letting them to suffer in overcrowded, dirty tanks. We hope our fish training success will show that fish are sensitive and responsive creatures that deserve better treatment than they often receive.
The people at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) think along the same lines. In fact, they have a special effort call the Fish Empathy Project, called http://www.fishing-hurts.org/, devoted to raising people's awareness of fish and promoting the welfare of fish.
So soon after we began having success training fish, I contacted the folks at the Fish Empathy Project suggesting we might team up to educate people about fish intelligence. I was pretty surprised by the lukewarm response from Karin Robertson, the project's manager.
She was polite, but told me in no uncertain terms that PETA was firmly against confining any animals including pet fish. She said some aquarium enthusiasts like us treat their fish well, but most people treat their pet fish badly, and confining fish in tanks is just wrong on the face of it. She was afraid that our efforts would, on balance, attract new people to the hobby of fish keeping, and the net result would be more rather than fewer fish being treated badly.
I understood her point, but I persisted, arguing that the patience required to train fish makes it unlikely to attract a flood of new pet fish owners. Instead, the general public would learn of our success and be amazed at what fish can be taught to do. In the end, this increased awareness would make people think twice about treating fish so badly, and perhaps even reconsider their choices about eating them.
I'd like think the force of my argument pursued her. That may have been part of it, but I learned what really changed her mind was an encounter she had at a restaurant soon after our email exchange.
Here is the amazing story she told, in her own words:
> Just last night I was speaking with a waiter about fish, after being
> asked what I did for a living. A waitress nearby said, somewhat
> embarrassed, that she had been a fish-eating vegetarian in the
> past, in part because she'd heard that fish were dumb and had
> a 3 second memory. I told them a bit about how intelligent fish
> are, and another waitress offered up that she'd seen pictures
> and read a story about a fish that learned how to play soccer
> and do tricks-- and that was why she became vegetarian :) I
> think others had a big awakening during that discussion as well.
> Congrats again on your huge success - and on all the people
> that you've inspired to stop eating fish :) Keep up the good work!
And guess what, soon after this message from Karin, a story about Fish School appeared on the front page of the Fish Empathy website, with the title:
‘Mad Scientists’ Prove Fish Have More On The Ball Than We Thought
It has remained on the front page to this day. How cool is that?!