If you are a subscriber to the newsletter, you read the story of Flash, our goldfish. Since I moved in with my girlfriend over a year and a half ago, I’ve been feeding Flash every morning.
She says I feed him too much which is why he is so much larger than when I first moved in. I say he got larger because we got a bigger tank.
This debate may go on for years!
Regardless, in the newsletter I talk about how during the first few months living here, feeding Flash was just something I had to do to keep him alive. I mean I have compassion for most animals (not as much for hamsters, but working on it) so it wasn’t like I abhorred the chore, but feeding him wasn’t something I thoroughly looked forward to doing each and every day.
For months, I walked over to his tank, opened the fish food, sprinkled some in, he came up to eat, and I walked away. I was done… no need to hang around after that point. It was routine, and even kind of boring.
Then one day I decided to change my routine just to feel a little less bored. I decided that in addition to feeding him and walking away, I was going to closely observe his behavior. I wanted to observe exactly how he moved, where he swam, how fast he swam, how slow, what he did when I fed him less or more, and what he did if I stuck my finger in the water when I fed him.
I even watched his breathing and other subtle things like that – all of which I completely ignored before. After all, it’s just a fish! There’s really nothing going on inside a fish, right?
A funny thing happened when I started observing his behavior… I noticed that he was also watching me.
I would be in the next room and he would swim to the side of the tank closest to me and just stare in my direction, seemingly staring right into my eyes.
It was strange but I actually thought it was cute. I really didn’t think he could see me twenty feet away.
But he stared…
So one day as he was watching me from the next room, I got up from my chair. As soon as I did, he zinged to the left, then zig-zagged around the tank then came back to his original position to watch me as if hoping I he was getting my attention.
Really? Can he even see me outside the tank? Is he really trying to get my attention?
I went into the room and moved towards him and he did it again – zipping back and forth as if he were an excited dog.
I already fed him, why is he acting this way? And wait, does he act this way when he’s hungry? I wouldn’t know because I never observed him before.
So I decided to watch him closely and try to figure out what this behavior meant. As I was watching, I noticed something I didn’t really notice before: his water was getting cloudy.
I thought, “Really, could he be telling me to change the water?” I could make assumptions all day about what his behavior was, but I figured we’d better change the water anyway because otherwise it gets too toxic for him to breathe it. We changed the water that night.
The next day, his tank was clean and he was swimming around as normal. He didn’t stare at me. He just swam around looking for food and doing his normal thing.
A few days went by without any unusual behavior until I noticed him staring at me again.
Seriously? Is he really staring at me? I still couldn’t believe that he could see me so far in another room. I mean, I always believed a goldfish was more like a stimulus-response, minimal-thinking creature – just a functional life-form that swims around looking for food and avoiding predators.
But there he floated in the same spot staring right at me.
As soon as I sat up, he shot left and right, zig-zagging around the tank like a balloon losing its air and rocketing all over the room.
I thought, “Is this fish actually excited to see me? Or is he just learning what he needs to do to get my attention? I mean either way it’s pretty amazing.”
So I walked over wondering what I’d see this time. Suddenly I realized what time it was… I hadn’t fed him yet!
I felt bad and immediately gave him some food (maybe a tad too much – oops). He didn’t stare at me for the rest of the day.
Fast forward several months to just a few weeks ago. Up to that point, I was like a scientist but also a friend. I watched everything he did, when he did it, and what he did after I would do certain behavior myself (sometimes I wonder if he was training me!).
Several weeks ago I walked in to feed him and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was shocked to see him stuck in the small net that had been sitting on top of the tank.
It fell in sometime during the day and got caught on the filter near the top. The net was in the water only like an inch or so and Flash ended up inside of it. I found him lying on his side, fortunately breathing, but unable to swim out of it. If the net was any closer to the top, he would have certainly died.
By this time, I had developed quite a friendship with this little guy. So you can imagine how I felt seeing him so close to his demise. I pushed the net down into the tank and freed him.
He swam down to the lower back part of the tank and he stopped moving. He just floated in one position in a darker area behind a some plants.
He just floated there as motionless as he could possibly be in the dark, as far away as he could possibly get. He honestly looked like he was in shock.
Having watched his behavior all this time, I’ve seen almost everything he does but I’d never seen “sit” completely motionless in the back of the tank.
This really drove home something I started to suspect months ago:
Flash actually has emotions.
I was told that goldfish are the “dumbest animals”, but after watching a goldfish for over a year, I have come to believe that every animal has emotions. The challenge is that we’re not usually observant enough to recognize them.
We are animals too.
We have the same sensory organs as many animals, similar neurological processes, and similar reactions to the same type of stimuli.
They use their eyes to see, so do we. They use their mouth to eat and breathe, so do we. Digestion, movement, and so many other processes are all similar to us. The combined intelligence in their body (their cells, their organs, their neurology and brain) works almost the same as ours!
Sure, they survive and thrive in a different environment, but they’ve adapted to the environment like we initially learned to adapt to ours (how we change our environment is a different topic for a different day).
So why wouldn’t they have emotions like us?
When I realized that what I was witnessing were emotional reactions, I immediately developed a compassion I never had for a fish, let alone most creatures “less than” a bird.
And now that I care and worry about him more, I think about his needs more often and I try to visit him more as well. Sure, it’s possible that everything I witnessed in Flash is pre-programmed, hardwired stimulus response, and I might tend to agree with that at first, but then I think about us humans… aren’t we also programmed the same way?
Flash did certain behavior to get a specific need met. We do certain behavior to get our specific needs met too.
Flash responds to dangerous situations by hiding. We respond to danger the same way (and sometimes we don’t, but it’s still in us!).
When it comes down to it, every single animal and insect on earth has sensory receptors of some sort (eyes, ears, nose, skin, etc) that are designed to experience the world in which we live so that we can map out a path of survival that leads to some sort of semblance of peace and / or comfort.
And the more each of us thrives, the more confident we feel in more situations. Along the same lines, the more we suffer, the more submissive and fearful we get just trying to survive. These aren’t absolutes as there are always exceptions and exceptional animals (are you one?), but for the most part we are all having a sensory experience of the world.
The meaning we give to that experience is what leads us down a path of suffering or peace.
The day I developed compassion for a fish is the day I learned a valuable lesson about all animals. It’s easy to see the emotions in cats and dogs as they are more comfortable being themselves around us. But it’s a lot harder to tell what’s going on in the minds of the other creatures in our life because we are just not aware of their experience of the world.
Does a fish have emotions? If it’s still hard to believe then perhaps the definition of “emotion” has to change to accommodate behaviors beyond those that are easily observed.
It’s easy to see and understand a smile or a wagging tail but truly challenging to see the emotion in a creature that doesn’t have the ability to smile or express itself in other, more obvious ways.
The lesson in all of this was for me to expand my compassion to all living things knowing that they are having a similar experience as us.
Could this expand to bugs? I mean, they also have eyes, legs, a brain, and so on. What if? And yes, I save most bugs.
Here’s the best part about all of this: I could be dead wrong.
And if I am, why does it matter? It’s a belief that serves me and expands my compassion ever further than it was before.
And that feels good to me.
Does it feel good to you?