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What is Pain to a Fish?

Published May 15, 2012 in Love For Earthlings, What's New |
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“…the way humans readily project their emotions and intentions into some animals and not others is itself a cause for concern. Few people have much fellow feeling for fish even though many fish are long-lived, have complicated nervous systems and are capable of learning complicated tasks.”

—Professor Patrick Bateson

Professor of Ethology
University of Cambridge

From salmon making the long journey from river to ocean and back, to goldfish swimming circles around a small pond, the inner lives of fishes are a mystery that scientists are only beginning to unravel. One of the key elements they are searching for is the extent to which each fish is sentient or, more specifically, how they process what we would call a “painful” sensation (such as a hook cutting into their lip.)

On this journey, scientists have discovered that fish have nerve structures that are anatomically very similar to those of humans and many other species of animals. Among these common structures are receptor cells called nociceptors, which are found throughout animals’ bodies and are activated by stimuli expected to cause damage to bodily tissues. Tellingly, some species of fish have upwards of 58 different nociceptors located in their lips alone*.

As in human anatomy, these nociceptors are wired by nerve fibres to the central nervous system (the spinal cord and brain.) When the pain centres in the brain are activated by signals from the nociceptors, they trigger the body to respond to the potentially harmful or life threatening events that may be happening.

Fish anatomy is so complex that they have even evolved the same “pain-blocking” substances (endorphins) as humans.** It is theorized that endorphins help animals to tolerate pain from severe injuries in order to help them escape from a predator. This leaves us with the question: Why would fish have endorphins in their bodies if they couldn’t feel pain? And why is there still a debate over their sentience?

Physiologist Lynne Sneddon discovered 58 different nociceptor sites in rainbow trout lips.
** Endorphins are akin to naturally occurring morphine, although their role in the body is more complex. It is also worth mentioning that some analgesic drugs used by humans also appear to reduce pain in fish.

In the scientific world the line between simply reacting to negative stimuli and “feeling pain” is marked by the capacity to process and express emotions.

“Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

- The International Association for the Study of Pain

Thus one of the main arguments scientists use against fish feeling pain is that their brains lack certain structural elements, most importantly the neocortex, which, in other animals such as humans, processes negative stimuli into emotions. The second common argument is that their amygdoid complex (similar to our amygdala which helps us process emotions) is wired to produce aggression and not fear.  The reason this is important to our sense of “feeling pain” is because our pain response also comes with a negative emotional reaction which in turn excites the amygdala and helps form a memory of the damage done to our bodies by a particular stimulus.

As you can see, in any species of animal, the concept of feeling pain is a complex one. What scientists are really trying to prove is not only that fish sense the negative stimuli damaging their bodies, but also despite the differences between their brains and ours, that they also have the capacity to associate emotions with the damage done. And some scientists claim to have proven just this.

The studies listed below demonstrate that a select group of scientists have indeed begun to recognize the human concept of “feeling pain” mirrored in the captive fish they were observing. Sadly these scientists chose to further their research by intentionally inflicting pain on their unwilling participants, leaving their findings tainted with inherent cruelty.

What the studies found:

Outcome: Goldfish exhibited “fearful, avoidance behaviour” after being subjected to high temperatures and then being put back in their normal tank.

Study: Biologists injected one group of goldfish with saline solution and the other with morphine, then exposed both to a painful level of heat. Janicke Nordgreen (one of the study’s authors) said,  “The fish that were given saline subsequently acted with defensive [behaviours], indicating anxiety, wariness and fear, whereas those given morphine did not”. Another one of the study’s authors also noted: “The experiment shows that fish do not only respond to painful stimuli with reflexes, but change their behaviour also after the event,” Joseph Garner.


Outcome: Fish displayed increased respiratory rate, avoidance of hard-pelleted food, rocking behaviour and rubbing their lips on gravel and the side of their tank walls after their lips were injected with chemicals known to cause pain.

Study: Fish were observed after having had bee venom and acetic acid injected into their lips. One group of fish received morphine after the injection; the other group only received saline solution. The fish that were given morphine (pain blocking medication) showed signs of reduced discomfort. (The University of Edinburgh and the Roslin Institute)


Outcome: Fish grunted when shocked with electrodes and showed signs of remembering the traumatic event.

Study: After they were shocked a number of times the fish began to grunt at merely the sight of the electrode, which they had previously been shocked by. This demonstrated their capacity to remember negative experiences. Emotions pay a key role in all animals’ capacity to remember. (Researcher William Tavolga)

Further evidence:

- Researchers have observed that trout have an amazing capacity for memory. They can remember how to avoid a fishing net months after their initial experience with it.

- Carp have been reported to alter their feeding and nesting behaviour following being hooked, and some reports indicate avoidance of hooks thereafter.

- Fish in aquariums (both large and small scale) have shown “caged behaviours” that demonstrate the adverse emotional affects they suffer from captivity. These include abnormal feeding, shelter-seeking, bottom-sitting, head-standing and tail walking. These and other repetitive behaviours that were observed are signs of emotional stress and neurological dysfunction.


Anyone who has gone fishing can attest to how hard each fish struggles against the hook it has unwittingly bitten into and how vehemently their bodies continue to fight even as they slowly suffocate on land.

Perhaps it is not the way in which fish process pain that is in question, but rather our own ability to empathize with them.

While it is easier for us to recognize our own expressions of fear, love and pain reflected in such species as dogs, primates and felines, this does not mean that we have a right to needlessly* kill or harm animals whose inner lives are a mystery to us.

*Many people include fish in their diets under the mistaken belief that they provide nutrients that aren’t readily available elsewhere, such as DHA. The truth is, while the human body does have specific nutrient requirements, we can fulfill these needs easily and more healthfully without including fish or any other animal products in our diets. If you are concerned about essential fatty acids, there are plenty available in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds (especially flax seeds), and if you want “healthy protein” look no further than the produce section.


“Fish constitute the greatest source of confused thinking and inconsistency on earth at the moment with respect to pain. You will get people very excited about dolphins because they are mammals, and about horses and dogs, if they are not treated properly. At the same time you will have fishing competitions on the River Murray at which thousands of people snare fish with hooks and allow them to asphyxiate on the banks, which is a fairly uncomfortable and miserable death”.

—Professor Bill Runciman, 
Professor of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care
Adelaide University


“Fish are no mere reflex-automatons, but animals capable of experiencing pain and fear and influenced [behaviourally] by experience, expectancies and motivational state in a manner analogous to that in higher animals up to man.”

—Dr R. Buwalda
Institute of Comparative Physiological Studies
Utrecht (Netherlands)


“Even though fish don’t scream [audibly to humans] when they are in pain and anguish, their behaviour should be evidence enough of their suffering when they are hooked or netted. They struggle, endeavouring to escape and, by so doing, demonstrate they have a will to survive.”

- Dr. Michael Fox, D.V.M., Ph.D.


“The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals.”

- Dr. Donald Broom, a scientific advisor to the British government.

Adapted from an article by A. Rutherford-Fortunati

Eco-Friendly Animal Products?

Published May 2, 2012 in Love For Earthlings, We Love Gaia, What's New |
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In the meat and dairy section of many grocery stores you may noticed packages marked with labels such as “humanely-raised“, “free-range”, “grass-fed”, “organic” or even “cruelty-free.” Each label is designed in its own way to give the consumer a sense that the products that they are purchasing are eco and animal friendly.

You can read more elsewhere about the misleading nature of these labels with regard to animal welfare, but for now let us take a look at what they mean in terms of land use, water, greenhouse gases and protecting native species.

Much of the research cited in this article pertains to cows (often referred to by industry terminology such as “beef” or “cattle”). But with billions of other farmed animals including pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats and sheep living on this planet, it is easy to see that this issue is not just about giving up “red meat.”

The American Meat Institute’s 2010 fact sheet states:

In 2009 the meat and poultry industry killed and processed:

•    8.7 billion chickens
•    246 million turkeys
•    113.6 million hogs
•    33.3 million cattle
•    2.2 million sheep and lambs

And remember, these numbers only pertain to the American meat industry. At the same time that the world population continues to skyrocket, the Western concept of an animal-based diet is also gaining popularity in other countries.

Factory farms were not created because people feel good about cramming animals into overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. They came about due to the growing demand for animal products and economic profit. And the answer to halting the cruelty and environmental destruction inherent in these practices does not lie in organic, local, grass-fed, humanely-raised, cruelty-free or free-range animal products. This research article elaborates on the reasons.

*This article focuses on what the reality of these practices means for the health of our planet. For more information on the ethical issues involved with free-range and organic animal farming, please read these post on “Cage-Free” and “Free-Range” animals.

Land Use:

The United Nations reports:

Livestock now use 30 per cent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 per cent of the global arable land used to produce feed for livestock.

Some people reading this statistic might say: “Well why don’t we stop growing grain for animals and use that land for grazing instead? Doesn’t that solve the issue?”

To start with, many animals such as pigs, turkeys and chickens will continue to be fed grain even if they are free-range. As for the animals that do consume grass, in the U.S. alone there are over 90.8 million* cows being raised for consumption. Each cow requires anywhere from 10,117 to 141,640 square metres of pasture to graze on, depending on the quality of the pasture.

If we use the most conservative figure of close to 10,000 square metres of pasture and multiply it by the number of cows in the US, that means we need approximately 918 billion square metres of fertile land for grazing. This works out to be around 916 million square miles, more than 10% of all the land in the U.S. And this number is ONLY for cows. It does not account for the space needed for over 2.2 million sheep and lambs to graze, or for giving 113.6 million pigs, 246 million turkeys, 8.7 BILLION chickens** adequate space to live in. Nor does it account for the space needed for continuing to grow grain for farmed animals who cannot survive on grass.

It is also important to note that unless grass-fed cows are being raised in a tropical area (more on the Brazilian rainforest coming up soon) they still need to be fed grain during the lean or winter months.

Some people argue that cows and other grass-fed animals such as sheep can be raised on “marginal lands” that cannot be used for growing crops or sustaining a forest.

This is the definition of marginal land:

Arid and generally inhospitable land. Marginal land usually has little or no potential for profit, and often has poor soil or other undesirable characteristics. This land is often located at the edge of deserts or other desolate areas.”

If marginal lands were used for grazing, the quality and quantity of grazing material would not be enough to support one cow for each 10,117 square metres. Thus the higher estimate of 141,639 square metres per cow would be more accurate. With 90.8 million cows needing 141,639 square metres a cow, we would need 14 billion square metres of marginal land for grazing. This works out to be over 12 million square kilometres of marginal grazing land. The whole of the United States is only 98 million square kilometres, so the math just does not work out.

Even if we could find the open grazing space to place these animals, what about the native species that are already present? Would they simply peacefully co-exist?

*These numbers are taken from the USDA’s semi-annual report for 2012.

**These numbers are for the animals killed in 2009 other than cows. When you take into account the animals being kept alive for their milk, eggs, and other body products such as wool, the actual number of farmed animals is significantly higher.

Destruction of native species:

Managing animals spread over a vast amount of space naturally requires more resources. Amongst other things, this includes rounding up, transporting and “protecting livestock from predators”. What “protecting livestock from predators” really means though, is prioritizing the life of one animal over another. The fences ranchers put up also interfere with wildlife being able to move across the country freely in order to find food and water.

Right now only three percent of the beef produced in the U.S. is grass-fed, and already, thousands of animals are killed or displaced to protect livestock. The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) programme was established in 1931 with the purpose of suppressing, exterminating and “managing” wildlife that are deemed detrimental to livestock. In 1997, for marketing and image purposes, the federal government changed the name of the ADC to “Wildlife Services.” At the same time, they coined the motto “Living with Wildlife.”

According to a USDA website:

Wildlife Services “provides Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and create a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist peacefully.”

To many inquisitive individuals, the term “peacefully co-existing” may include killing other sentient beings. Yet Wildlife Services regularly commits to initiatives that kills off native species through poisoning, trapping, snaring, “denning*”, shooting, and aerial gunning.

The list of animals that Wildlife Services are sanctioned to displace or kill include, but are not limited to, wild horses, badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. This list is long, but it is not exhaustive. And while Wildlife Services are finding new ways to “peacefully co-exist” with native species, domestic dogs, cats and threatened/endangered species are often unintentionally killed as well.  Even with these deaths unaccounted for, Wildlife Services are still said to intentionally kill more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. All of this is in large part paid for with tax dollars from Americans.

*‘Denning’ is defined as pouring kerosene into an animal’s den and then setting fire to it, burning the young animals alive in their nests.

Why the Rainforest is being torn down:

As mentioned, if cows are not raised in a tropical area, during the winter months they must be fed grain and, to some extent, sheltered or moved to a warmer climate. To sidestep this issue, among other economic reasons, much of the “free-range” beef in the US is raised in other countries (Brazil) or on the formally pristine hills of Hawaii.

Last year, a scientist in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology stated that cows raised for consumption in Brazil are the primary drivers of rainforest deforestation, which is in turn one of the world’s largest contributors to climate change!

While the demand for grass-fed and free-range beef is a large part of what is driving farmers to cut down the rainforest, there is more to this destruction than meets the eye.

Pastures destroyed:

Many people assume that as animals such as cows, sheep and goats wander around grazing, their poop naturally fertilizes the grass and improves soil fertility.

After a period of time, manure will break down and turn into soil, but before it does so the nitrogen (and other nutrient) content is so high it will actually “burn” the plants and grass on which it falls. As the animals move about, the ground also becomes compacted, while native plant species are trampled and noxious weeds spread. This causes the land to become “cow-burned” and unusable for grazing for an extended period of time, or even indefinitely, depending on the level of damage done.

And what happens to our atmosphere and water supply as all that excrement breaks down?

Clean Water and Greenhouse Gases:

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report*, showed that on the global scale (largely due to the meat and dairy industry), 70% of freshwater consumption, 38% of total land use and 14%  of the world’s greenhouse gases are attributed to agricultural production. Professor Edgar Hertwich, the lead author of this report, stated that: “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals. Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.”

This may not be news, but it is still rather alarming and frustrating to see how much freshwater is being used by the meat and dairy industry each year, especially at the same time that millions of people are becoming ill from waterborne parasites, viruses and bacteria caused by human and animal waste in their water. To add insult to injury, the majority of that same animal waste found its way into our water systems through the very same meat and dairy industry which is gobbling up the majority of our fresh water.**

While the majority of pollution caused by agricultural runoff is attributed to factory farms, this issue is not simply going to disappear by spreading over 90.8 million free-range cows across the country and subsequently closer to the fresh water streams, rivers and ground water reserves which run through and under the very pasture they would graze upon.

But what about the greenhouse gases produced by farmed animals? That must get better when they are not in over crowed factory farms…

*Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production Priority Products and Material

**To learn more about this issue, read Faecal Matters by Angel Flinn.

Greenhouse gases from free-range and grass-fed animals:

The final myth about these “alternatives to factory farming” that I would like to explore is that of green house gases. Each year new reports come out about how much methane and nitrous-oxide farmed animals produce and its mounting impact on the environment. Well if the pork is organic, the chicken free-range and the cows grass-fed then may just do something to reduce greenhouse gases…

If fact Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia estimated that pasture-raised cows produce 50% MORE green house gases than feedlot (factory farmed cows). Many may ask why so.

It is rather logical. Cows subsisting on grass grow much slower (at their natural pace) than cows fed on grain. Thus, it takes much longer for them to be ready for slaughter. The longer it takes the cows to grow, the more grass they must eat, and the more methane and nitrous-oxide they emit. It is also worth noting that most of those vast pastures they are grazing on are also enhanced with fertilizers, which the cows ingest as they graze.

As mentioned, spreading an issue out does not mean it goes away. Animals must still eat, defecate, drink, and move about, and with these simple acts comes many of the same issues created by industrial animal farming.

So thus we come to the final frontier:

What about buying local?

Every aspect of animal farming that has been addressed applies to local farms as well. No matter how you package it and no matter how you label it, an animal-based diet is not sustainable.

With the population expected to reach 9.1 billion people by 2050, our cultural, political and culinary defenses have to be addressed and start taking real stock of the impact our dietary choices make. In life there are often many things we cannot control, but thankfully, our diet is one of the things we do have a choice about.

We have come to a point where even the UN is telling us to switch to a vegan diet:

Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.

It is our everyday choices that are creating the environmental crisis the world is facing today, and it is our everyday choices that may still be able to save us.

Becoming vegan is not just about environmental or health benefits though because becoming vegan requires us to acknowledge each sentient being’s right to life. The environmental destruction that the meat and dairy industry has been allowed to inflict on our planet is only a symptom of how we have blinded ourselves to not just what we are eating, but whom. It is time to open our eyes, minds, and most important, our hearts, and choose life for the animals, the planet and ourselves.

Adapted from an article by Alisa Rutherford-Fortunati

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