Chesapeake Bay catfishAlongside the rise and fall of the sun, fishing has been consistent throughout my life. I was two weeks old when I was introduced to the boat, and legend tells it that I caught my first fish within three months of being on this big, blue planet. Who knows if that’s actually true - fishermen are notorious liars, after all. Either way, fish have been my close friends throughout my life. More so than my beloved dogs, the Carolina Chickadees ever outside my bedroom window, and even trees.

A lifetime alongside fish has lent me a thousand experiences among them. Mostly, pulling them from the Chesapeake’s brackish water before sticking them in an ice-packed box. It took me almost two decades of “living among fish” to ask myself:

What are they really feeling when I take them out of the water? What is this experience like for them? 

May is Animal Kindness Month, so I ask that you join me in reflecting on fish and our relationship with them. 

As it turns out, the answer is pretty surprising if you grew up like I did, believing common misconceptions; like that goldfish only have a three-second memory, or that fish are incapable of experiencing pain. As it turns out, fish are far more complex creatures than many humans give them credit for, and experience a range of sensory experiences. During a 2022 Oxford University study, researchers were able to train nine goldfish to complete a distance-based navigation task for food. Eight of the nine goldfish were able to complete the task when researchers altered the task. Those eight goldfish were even able to remember how to complete the course when an external prompt, which had previously signaled that the fish were to turn around, was removed. This striking study, alongside others, has busted the myth that goldfish have three-second memories. 

Trout can be caught in the Chesapeake watershedSimilarly, research over the past two-decades or so has seriously challenged assumptions that fish are unable to feel pain. Victoria Braithwaite, British scientist and Professor of Animal Behaviour and Cognition at Pennsylvania State University, conducted extensive research throughout her life in hopes of answering if fish can feel pain. Braithwaite argues that ‘‘there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals’’ in her 2010 book Do Fish Feel Pain?. Braithwaite’s research on rainbow trout involved injecting or dosing the fish with noxious stimulus to observe abnormalities in their behavior. In one study conducted, rainbow trout whose lips were treated with bee venom were observed to avoid eating food even when starved, rub their lips against their tanks, increase respiration, and ignore new objects placed in their tank, which normally would draw the fishes’ attention. These behaviors ceased when the fish were treated with morphine, indicating that observable pain responses were due to the stimulus. This study provided evidence of nociception, or pain reception, in fish. 

Other studies have found that fish will adversely react to a clamp intended to cause pain to their tail and lip, however, once anesthesia was introduced the fish have a less notable reaction to the clamp. Likewise, studies have demonstrated that fish will avoid electrified areas associated with pain, but may return if they are starved and food is introduced to the area. This study and others like it have demonstrated that fish avoid areas associated with pain.

If you’ve been a life-long angler, this information might be surprising, or even alarming. It definitely was for me - in some ways, it helped elucidate that I have a relationship with fish. Seeing myself in relationship with fish helped me understand that my personal connection to them lacked care and reverence - I think often about the fish that I caught and let sit on ice before I knew better. Today, I use a Japanese method of dispatching fish called ikijime. Ikijime involves driving a spike through the fishes’ brain, instantly ending its life while preserving the quality of its meat.

Appropriately, around the time I began to explore my relationship with fish, I learned of a Buddhist concept called “Indra’s Net”. Indra’s Net is a metaphor: in Indra’s realm, there is a net stretching infinitely in all directions. At each connection-point on the net is a jewel. Each of these jewels reflects all other jewels in the net, infinite in number, stretching on endlessly. Thus, whatever impacts a single jewel impacts all jewels on the net. As I considered how I interacted with fish, I wondered how intentional kindness would send ripples throughout our interconnected web of life.

So, this Animal Kindness Month, join me in reflecting on how you interact with animals. Are you a spider-squisher? Try taking a spider outside this month, or calling a friend to do it for you. Haven’t connected with your backyard birds recently? Try putting up a nesting box, or establishing a feeder. Do butterflies bring you joy? Consider adding native pollinator plants to your landscaping or container garden. Maybe you’ll find, too, that kindness is infinite.

Mollie Rudow


Outreach Coordinator (Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico, Worcester, Caroline, Talbot)