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do fish feel pain?

1 march 2011


Next question: what should we do about it? We take more and more care all the time to ease the pain of those captive mammals and birds under our care, in zoos, labs, and feedlots. Shouldn't we start thinking seriously about fish welfare?

Now just a minute, I hear you cry. It's all well and good to provide hens with aerobics programs and creche services, but fish? Sorry, Charlie. How do we have any idea that fish feel anything at all? That crappie I caught last week just lay there while I took out the hook, and swam off stupid-looking as ever when I threw him back. (That was my straw man talking – I haven't gone fishing in years – but I must admit that I read much of Do Fish Feel Pain? at a table in my favorite catfish restaurant.)

Victoria Braithwaite published some of the first studies that establish how fish feel pain. In Do Fish Feel Pain? she elaborates her findings into a book for general audiences. The first step in Braithwaite's research was to determine if fish exhibit "nociception." Nociception is like perception, except that where perception is a general term, nociception is a perception of harmful things. Grab a hot coal and you'll drop it before you think about it, even before you have any sensation of heat or pain. That's human nociception.

Anyone who's picked up an objecting earthworm is pretty sure that animals considerably "lower" than fish possess nociception. But when Braithwaite and her colleagues began work, almost nothing had been published about the neural mechanisms of piscine annoyance avoidance. Her lab was able to show that fish are disoriented and distracted by noxious stuff like jabs of bee venom and spritzes of vinegar, and to chart some of the pathways in their nervous systerms that contribute to those nociceptions.

And they were able to show more: that fish who'd been hurt by such things remained low-performers at fishy tasks for some time, and that fish given pain medication recover their skills more quickly than their untreated schoolmates. Such lingering aftereffects of trauma comprise true pain: the ache that lasts after the coal has been dropped, and affects our dexterity for days afterwards.

In such findings there's an odd sense that Braithwaite's title question has been answered even by the possibility of such experiments. She anaesthetized fish in order to do an invasive procedure; why would fish need anaesthesia if they couldn't feel nociception or pain? She knew to relieve them with morphine: if fish are receptive to morphine in the first place, doesn't that mean that they have a built-in capacity to feel the evils that morphine assuages?

As Braithwaite herself points out, society already believed that fish feel pain, even before science "knew" it. Vertebrate-animal protocols for labs automatically include fish; even if this is just to be on the safe side, the assumption behind them is that fish are close enough to humans in their sensitivity to deserve protections not extended to oysters or mussels. And anglers, though they are sometimes loath to admit it, have a fairly long common-sense tradition of recognizing the pain that captured fish go through, and trying to alleviate it when possible.

In fact, Braithwaite's work, though groundbreaking and politically topical for the fields of sport angling and aquaculture, seems to confirm something that we've "always already" known. Some philosophers are human-exceptionalists, denying sentience and suffering to any other animals. But most unpsychotic folks, and most world religions, extend sympathy to animals in pain, as being, like us, God's creatures. Not to recognize the pain we share with animals is not to recognize ourselves as part of the animal kingdom: a presumptuous, but very Western, notion.

In fact Braithwaite's discussion of her lab work calls into question the nature of "science" itself. It's too profound an issue to address in a casual review, but it's intriguing: something everybody knows is not "known to science" until somebody's devised a way to quantify results of tests based on an algorithm that controls, in highly artificial ways, for isolated variables. We could have saved Braithwaite the trouble by reading Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Fish," or even Ernest Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea. But somehow the insights of art never really count, in the West, as "knowledge."

Braithwaite, Victoria. Do Fish Feel Pain? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.