Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Do Fish Frolic?

I often wonder… Are we the only sentient beings on the planet? I am not speaking of some as yet undiscovered missing link or a being that is so intelligent that it has avoided detection, but rather, have we underestimated the intelligence of other life forms? Fish, for example. Of course, they are not very intelligent by our standards. They do not have, as far as we know, any sort of language to frame or file thoughts with and no means of exchanging ideas. They probably don’t have any ideas. However, we know they have a brain, we know they process information, but do they think? Can they enjoy life? Is there more? Do fish frolic?

I know, I know. It’s finally happened. I’ve completely lost touch with reality. Do fish think? What kind of a question is that? Who cares? That’s a better question! Maybe. Allow me to put some context around this question because, like most of my writing, I am working from a slightly different angle. And yes, I may have lost touch with reality, but I’ll be right back!

Recently I used this space to write about the frogs that have taken up residency in my decorative pond just outside my front door. I told of the marvel of their curious appearance as tadpoles, the disappointment of their disappearance and the elation of their return in the form of frogs. And the croaking! My next frog blog (not my term, give credit where it’s due, thanks Dad!) described the great circle of life and how it had manifested in the neighborhood cat. The cat had established itself in its proper place a few notches higher than the frogs on the food chain.

And today? The frogs have persevered, but are nothing more than co-stars, extras really. Today I introduce not only the fish, but also the tarantula (Webster) and the crickets. Webster came with a cage and is my middle son’s; no, she does not freak me out. She can be handled (I don’t) and only eats live food – crickets. She’ll eat as many as one per day, but can go weeks without. When it has been what I feel is a long enough famine for poor ole Webster, I’ll go to the local PetSmart and buy ten large crickets. They keep them in the fish area…

Stay with me…

While waiting for my $0.15 crickets, I browsed the fish in the tanks. There were salt water, fresh water, tropical, bottom feeders, eels, very expensive and very cheap. The very cheapest were “feeder” gold fish. They are the proverbial “little fish” that the proverbial “big fish” eat. Similar in purpose to the crickets, they just serve a different environment. And at $0.29 each, they’re considerably more expensive. There were literally hundreds of them in a pretty good size tank separated into thirds with different size fish in each part.

They didn’t look happy, although I'm sure they didn’t know it. How could they – they’re fish? At the same time, the wheels started turning and on a whim, I bought ten of them. Now I had $2.90 worth of gold fish in a little plastic bag, right next to $1.50 worth of crickets. Their fates, however, may not be the same. No, I don’t think they knew it.

Ok, ok - the point. When I put the fish in the pond, they seemed to be absolutely jubilant. I’m sure if they had legs, they’d be jumping for joy! At first it must’ve seemed to them like they were going from out of the frying pan and into the fire. But from the fire? Straight to gold fish Heaven. They were darting about, getting their feet wet, as it were! Compared to their most recent two homes, my pond must be like Buckingham Palace.

Are they happier? God only knows. If they are happier, do they know it? I say it doesn’t matter. I think that anything living can experience peace and that it can be experienced in the absence of chaos and uncertainty. Knowing peace and knowing what peace is are not the same. And it could be that the fish, although on the same level as the frogs in regards to the food chain, may not be smart enough to avoid the cat, thus fulfilling they're original purpose. I think, however, they are happier in the meantime.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not – repeat not - one that believes because animals have feelings they should be spared the cruelties of the world. Some animals were put here to eat others. As the masters of our environment, we have been able to civilize much of the brutality of the natural world. And we have taken it to new levels of disgust as well. I am not advocating for “special” treatment towards animals. I would, however, like to finish this mini-editorial with some consciousness raising in that it serves no purpose to be inhumane – whatever that definition is to you.

We seem to believe that happiness is a continuum – that our present state can only be measured by comparison. I too work within this paradigm, but I wonder whether it is necessary. Can I truly experience peace, happiness or contentment without anything else present to measure it with? Do I need past experience to qualify my present? Can there be a state of peace in which one just is and without what one is not? Do fish frolic?


neal said...

You know, I have often wondered what animals think myself. I never paid much heed to fish in particular other than the fact that they obviously look like they are suffering when you catch one and pull it out of the water.

I used to think quite a bit about cows. Cows just look downright stupid. Dogs on the other hand can look keenly intelligent at times.

When you mention in your last paragraph, 'Can I truly experience peace, happiness or contentment without anything else present to measure it with? Do I need past experience to qualify my present? Can there be a state of peace in which one just is and without what one is not? , it sounds almost Yin and Yangish. Is that actually a word, Yangish? I think you know what I mean though. The concept of Yin/Yang, how you cannot have one without the other, soft versus hard, sadness versus joy. I do think that since all things were created from the same source of raw materials that if we as humans can experience joy and sadness that the animals can also experience them, if to a lesser extent. Look at how dogs wag their tails when they are happy.

Who knows, maybe I should wait till I die and am reincarnated as a cow and then I can know for sure.

UltimateWriter said...

i think in general we severely underestimate the thinking power of animals. there are countless animal studies that demonstrate their intelligence level which you've probably seen on discovery or something.

Also, its important to consider that teaching dogs, cats, gorillas, lions, whales, dolphins, elephants, or whatever to obey human verbal commands immediately shows their intelligence as not many humans can obey animal commands or talk their language.

Obeying human commands is not a fully accurate measure of intelligence. Theres no way of accurately measuring how intelligent animals are in their interactions with their own kind. For all we know, they could be using thinking methods that are totally novel to ours. Now that WOULD be cool to find out.

Bar L. said...

Mike, you revealed a new side of yourself in this like critters! I know all about the buying of crickets (fed them to fire-belly toads) and I even had to buy pinkies for my snake (pinkies are baby mice that are frozen - you thaw them out and feed them to a snake if you can't handle killing one and you don't want to rish the snake getting bit by the mouse - it happens).

I believe that animals both think and feel to different degrees. I have seen my dog express anger, jealousy, contentment, sadness, regret, happiness, concern. I'm not sure if all dogs are as in tune as she is, but its easy to identify these "feelings".

I think God gave us jurisdiction over the animals and that we are allowed to use them for our purposes (for working and food) but at the same time are responsible to treat them humanely.

I guess the actual point of your post is whether or not humans can experience peace with nothing to compare the state of "peace" to. I don't know...but I do think fish frolic and I KNOW that dolphins have FUN.

Jinsane said...

What an absolutely wonderful post! I enjoyed it immensely. I do believe that on certain levels all animals have a thought process, albiet some might be very minor.

I am a HUGE animal lover, but also agree with your point that all animals have their own "place" in this world.

I definitely think that fish frolic! ;o)

Ellen said...

Hmmm.... do fish frolic? Good question. Anyone who is an animal lover will tell you that they do... even if their brain has only THAT as part of it's knowledge.
They're very bain of existance is to eat and try to stay away from the bigger preditors.

We on the other hand need experience to measure our happiness, as it's all part of the process of being human. Our brains are bigger, and more capable of thought, learning, and eventually teaching. We have evolved to the top of the food chain because of this very process.
It's not enough for us to frolic, we feel the need to control the environment so that it works for us. It's only too bad that we seem to screw it up daily with poor decisions...

We could co-exist in the world if we followed a few simple rules from the fish, but alas, we are too *smart* for that.

Not sure if I answered the question... but that's my two cents on it.

As always... great thought-provoking post!

Snaggle Tooth said...

You ask questions and seek an answer from the audience of readers...
I believe the answer is "Yes" to all these questions. That's my personal opinion based on experience and writing profs opinions.
In writing, as well as life experiences of emotion, relative comparison is the clearest means of finding definition.
How can one know what good or better is without having experienced a bad or worse beforehand?

Sometimes cheap pond goldfish can live over ten years and grow a foot in length. I've seen it happen...

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

To answer the question you posed on my blog, yes, I am a friend of Bill W's now for more than 14 years.

Lacey said...

I know, I'm reading your blog a little late. But this one got me thinking. Can we be happy without measuring our present against a past?
Let's talk about stress, because for animals it is the struggle to survive. For humans - the struggle to be productive? According to the Matrix humans can't accept a world without stress as a reality--we rebel. In that case we need the struggle to be happy.

I don't think there is any knowlege of good without the bad, really. At least for humans. Why should fish be any different?