The anthropomorphization of fish:

Evan Baldonado

By Evan Baldonado
(Founder of AquariumKids)

Eibl's Angelfish by Comiquarium

The extent to which animals share certain traits with humans is a contentious issue of ethics that has been a source of great divide amongst people. If animals are capable of experiencing the same feelings as us humans, then how, in good conscience, can we "murder" them for food and practically enslave them, exploring them for our own personal benefits?

In school, you've likely learned about the term "personification," the application of human characteristics to something nonhuman. An example of this would be saying that "aquaria has always called my name." "Aquaria" is not a person, but it has been given the human characteristic of being able to "call my name."

Now, let's look at a similar word, "anthropomorphization." Like personification, anthropomorphization is also related to the application of human characteristics to something nonhuman, specifically an animal.

We all anthropomorphize animals to a certain extent, but the lengths by which we do so differ greatly. Let's take, for example, horses: Horses are majestic creatures, capable of forming emotional bonds with humans. Some may believe that this is simply because the person helps fulfill the horse's needs of food, water, and shelter, while others may think of it as a bond, similar to those between humans, forged of trust and love. As a result, some of us find horses more "human" than others do.

The amount people anthropomorphize an animal is also dependent upon its species, perfectly proven by comparing our treatment of insects with our treatment of dogs. We anthropomorphize dogs much more than ants. We can play with a dog, walk with them, even cuddle together, whereas we obviously can not do the same with an ant. Generally, the more we can interact with an animal, the more we tend to anthropomorphize it.

In anthropomorphizing an animal, we grant them certain rights in the process. In western culture, consuming a dog is taboo, given the extent to which their anthropomorphization has assimilated into our society. But what if we had domesticated wolves into the animals we now know today as dogs? As much as we hate to imagine, it is entirely possible that eating dogs would not be the taboo that it currently is had we not so seamlessly integrated them with our culture today.

When it comes to fish and other non-mammalian animals, we are not capable of interacting with them in the same way we do with our dogs – we can't take them on walks or cuddle with them. The extent to which any one person anthropomorphizes these animals can greatly differ from how another does so. On one hand, there are people who embed metal hooks through the mouths of fish for sport, leisure, and entertainment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who proclaim that "fish are friends, not food," and love them just as much as they would love a dog. The amount by which one anthropomorphizes fish raises a plethora of issues regarding the ethicality their treatment. Usually, anthropomorphizing an animal will lead to its benefit, but in some somewhat counterintuitive cases, the extreme anthropomorphization of fish can also lead to their demise. Conversely, failing to adequately anthropomorphize fish is a slippery slope that can lead to what many deem to be inhumane and horrific torture.

Over-anthropomorphizing fish can lead to certain dangers. Anthropomorphizing pet fish by giving them personas can be harmful as well. Thinking that certain fish (such as male bettas) "need" friends can result in fights. When male bettas are placed in a tank together, they will likely fight to the death. Feeding fish every time that they "beg" by swimming up to the glass can result in overfeeding, bloating, and, eventually, death. Though fish do share certain traits with humans, they are still entirely different creatures than us and do not behave exactly as we do. The direct translation of human behavior onto to fish can also be harmful on a much larger scale than a single person's fish tank. For example, the movie Finding Nemo resulted in a decline of wild clownfish populations for years after its release. Upon seeing the memorable movie, many people wanted to have their own pet "Nemo." By giving Marlin, Dory, Nemo, and all of the other fish characters human personalities and agendas that we could relate to, the movie pulled at our heartstrings. The consequence of wild clownfish populations being hurt was obviously unintended by the makers of Finding Nemo, but it still goes to show how seemingly harmless actions such as anthropomorphization can butterfly effect into affecting the fates of entire species.

More intuitively, under-anthropomorphizing fish can be harmful too. When people go fishing, or when they're eating a "McSalmon" (or whatever vile dish McDonald's has concocted now), they are seeing fish as less human than when they're watching Finding Nemo. Hopefully, none of us are the next Hannibal Lector and we aren't into killing and eating other people. We would never eat a human or any animal that we anthropomorphize past a certain degree. In western culture, animals such as dogs benefit from this facet of human nature and they are protected from human consumption. However, fish are not quite to lucky. Not only do we eat fish, but are they are offered no legal protection from potential inhumane treatment either. There are regulations that govern the slaughter of animals such as cows, horses, and pigs for slaughter, but there are no such laws that apply to fish. As a result, fish suffer. Killing and eating them has been ingrained into our culture. In this case, being further anthropomorphized would benefit fish as people would be far less keen to kill them. A more localized and pet-centric example can be seen when people think that their fish don't deserve the care that they should have. When people have mindsets such as this one, we end up seeing goldfish in bowls, bettas in vases, and fish in dirty, cramped quarters. Had these people anthropomorphized their fish more, then they would likely have abstained from cruel practices such as using bowls and vases as "homes" for their fish.

Clearly, both over and under-anthropomorphizing fish are capable of hurting them. If anthropomorphization is the path that we need to take to love our fish, then so be it. But we need to understand that fish are fundamentally different from people and that they each have their own unique needs and requirements. We need to work on finding the perfect balance of anthropomorphization, one that helps us appreciate fish, yet does not hurt them in the process. We need to realize that fish are not people, but we should still care about our fishy friends the way that we care about people.

So, the next time you go to a McDonald's for that tasty McSalmon, think. When you watch Finding Dory, think. When you anthropomorphize an animal, think. Think about the consequences of your anthropomorphization or lack thereof and think about how your actions will affect that animal. And then, act. Act in a way that you deem responsible and in a way that will help that animal as opposed to hurting it.

Thanks for reading this article about anthropomorphization (published 11/23/16)! For more information, please browse around! Feel free to contact me at evanb [at] aquariumkids [dot] com with any questions.

What's your experience in anthropomorphizing fish? Do you do it? Let's start a discussion in the comments section below:

- Evan Baldonado

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