Do fish have feelings? And if they do, does anybody care? RSPCA Australia’s willingness to lease their logo to salmon farmers suggests that the ill-treatment of our finny forebears is not as much of a priority for them as, say, koala baiting or quokka soccer – or even the substitution of cane toads for golf balls (and how many club-swinging Queensland Speccie readers can honestly say that’s never been a temptation?) What’s less clear about rival charity WWF Australia’s concerns re the sustainability of salmon farming in general and the RSPCA’s arrangement with Huon Aquaculture in particular, is which of the fish in this story are more deserving of our sympathy: the pellet-fed interlopers whose wasted carcasses now clog so many Tasmanian estuaries, or the displaced indigenous species choking on their bacteria-laced faeces? The Australian best qualified to answer this question is probably bio-ethicist Peter Singer, who tells us that the suffering human beings inflict on animals should be evaluated in quantitative rather than qualitative terms, and that since we slaughter fish in far greater numbers than we slaughter cows, pigs, sheep or chickens, ordering a Filet-o-Fish is less morally acceptable than ordering a Big Mac. Utilitarianist Singer also maintains, just as counter-intuitively, that anglers who practise catch-and-release (and think well of themselves for doing so) are more ethically problematic than those who eat what they catch. As an angler myself, I concede that the fish I catch must have feelings, but I don’t believe those feelings are very deep or enduring. I came to this conclusion sitting on a canal bank in the north of England when I was about ten. A few minutes earlier I’d landed a largish carp, and in the inexpert and protracted process of extracting the hook, had detached its entire upper lip. Full of remorse I threw the poor thing back into the shallows, where it bled quietly for a while before limping off into the weeds. Five minutes later, my hook re-baited and my line re-cast, I got another vigorous bite and was astonished to discover, lifting this fish from the water, that it was the very same carp – a near-death experience and my bungling amateur surgery having not even dulled its appetite to any observable degree. So when it comes to piscatorial passion I think I’m with Cole Porter rather than Peter Singer. Yes, goldfish in the privacy of bowls might well do it, but that shouldn’t stop you ordering the shad roe.
Goldfish are amongst the few Australian household pets whose popularity has not increased during the pandemic. Dogs, though, have never been in greater demand, not least because, unlike a goldfish, a dog can accompany you on your lockdown latte constitutional. As someone who lives alone, I might have enjoyed a bit of canine camaraderie over the last 18 months. But even if I could have afforded the enormous sums unscrupulous breeders are now charging for puppies of dubious lineage I wouldn’t have bought one, because the unit I rent is in a strata building, and for as long as anyone can remember there’s been a blanket ban on animals in strata buildings in NSW. Last week, though, possibly in response to the lobbying of legion lonely leaseholders, the state government finally repealed this cruel by-law, and I’d reduced my canine cohabitant short-list to beagle or bulldog when news of President Biden’s shameful abandonment of Kabul pushed all such personal considerations off my radar. In the days since, like most Australians, I’ve taken pride in the efforts of ADF personnel to evacuate refugees, and was relieved to hear that all those servicemen and women were also able to exit the city safely themselves. Notwithstanding my ongoing pooch project, I was less impressed by the achievement of ex-British Royal Marine ‘Pen’ Farthing, who somehow persuaded the UK’s Kabul embassy to green-light his airlift of hundreds of the stray cats and dogs he’d rescued from the streets of Kabul since his demobbing. If the setting had been Pyongyang, where the fate of such animals would be too horrible to contemplate, or if the Taliban’s position on cats and dogs was comparable to its position on women, I might be a bigger fan of Mr Farthing. But as it is, all I’d say to the people now trying to find a home for his displaced pets is this: Give me a call if there’s an Afghan hound amongst them.
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