Since I moved in with my girlfriend in 2015, I’ve been feeding our fish, 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 first few months living with her, feeding Flash was just something I had to do to keep him alive. 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 food in. Then he came up to eat and I walked away. That was it. I was done. There was 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, I thought it’s just a fish. Nothing really going 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…
One day as he was watching me from the next room. I got up from my chair and as soon as my butt left the seat before I even stood up, he zinged to the left, then zig-zagged around the tank, then came back to his original position to watch me as if hoping he was getting my attention.
I thought, really? Can he even see me outside the tank? Is he really trying to get my attention?
I went into the room his stand was standing and moved toward him. He did it again – zipping back and forth as if he were an excited dog. I had already fed him that day so I couldn’t figure out why he was acting this way. Then I considered that perhaps he acts this same way when he’s hungry but I never noticed it because I never observed him like this before.
I decided to watch him more closely throughout the weeks to try and figure out what his behaviors meant. As I observed him, I noticed something I didn’t really notice before: his water was getting cloudy.
I thought perhaps he was telling me I needed to change the water? Would he convey a message like that? Would he know so much as to realize this tall walking creature outside his reach was someone that takes care of his environment?
I could make assumptions all day about his particular behaviors, but I figured I’d better change the water anyway otherwise it might get too toxic for him to breathe. I 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. I thought seriously, is he really staring at me?
I still couldn’t believe that he could see me so far in another room. I always believed a goldfish was more like a stimulus-response, minimal-thinking creature. I believed they were just a functional life-form that swims around looking for food and avoiding predators.
But there he was, floating in the same spot as he was before staring right at me. And again, 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.
Once again befuddled by what I was witnessing, a thought came to my mind. Maybe this fish is actually excited to see me. That couldn’t be. Maybe I was right to think he was a stimulus-response creature that learns how to survive by testing behavior and learning by his results. If that is the case, then he’s just learning to get my attention. If he gets my attention, he gets some need met.
Hmm… either way, it’s still pretty amazing. So I walked over wondering what I’d see this time. At that moment, 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.
For several months, 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).
One day 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 lying on his side, fortunately breathing, but unable to swim out of it. If the net were 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 some plants. He just floated there in the corner as motionless as he could possibly be, wading in the dark as far away as he could get. He honestly looked like he was in shock.
Having watched his behavior all this time, I’d seen almost everything he did. But I’d never seen him “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 dumb animals with a 3-second memory. 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. But really, 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 their 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 compassion for him. I never thought I’d have an emotional connection to a fish. 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.
It’s quite possible that everything I witnessed in Flash is pre-programmed, hardwired stimulus-response, (and I might even 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 to do so).
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 we have them around us all the time and they’ve developed ways to communicate with us that we understand and recognize.
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 insects? They also have eyes, legs, a brain, and so on.
And yes, I save most bugs. Most.
What’s interesting is that I know I could be wrong about all of this. And if I am, why does it matter? It’s a belief that can only serve me and those I serve (all living creatures). And having this belief expands my compassion more than it has before. And that can only be a good thing.
Believing all animals and even bugs are having an emotional experience feels good to me. Hopefully, that belief feels good to you too.
Update 2020: Since this article was written, we found a goldfish rescue that takes in goldfish to be cared for by those with ponds and places for them to continue their life.
Flash started off as a carnival fish. He lived in a tank for 9 years. He never knew what it was like to be with other fish. The day we brought him to the rescue and put him into the tank with other goldfish, we were worried that he would be afraid to socialize.
Without delay, he immediately swam to the other fish and got a feel for the entire pond. He acclimated fast and seemed to have no fear at all. He swam around as if he owned the place.
We knew right away this was the right decision. Being alone for 9 years then graduating to being in a large pond with other fish just like him must have been exhilarating. We were so happy to have found this place.
We miss him, but we believe he’s much happier now. His happiness mattered above all else.