LettersLetter From Hugh to his Nephew About Fish Feeling Pain - September 3, 2008
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Letter From Hugh to his Nephew About Fish Feeling Pain - September 3, 2008

Dear Andrew:

Happy Epiphany! You’ll be surprised to hear from your elderly ancestor, but I want to get this note off to you in today’s mail. I suppose you’ll be getting even busier than ever with the Winter Semester being added to your schedule along with your full-time job. I hope the next months will be good ones in your life.

I hope that you will read these lines without imagining that I am trying to say that “I am right and you are wrong!” Such is far from the case. It’s just that, at the Christmas dinner table, you made a statement which summarized what I used to believe, too, but one which modern science has proven to be very incorrect. Yet, it’s a popular misconception; and in the final years of my life, when I’ve heard it made, I’ve felt that I should get the correct facts “out” to people.

I used to believe (as so many still do) that fish feel no pain, that they are such dumb creatures that they are unaware of what is being done to them. Thus, I was able to justify the “sport” of fishing without my conscience much bothering me. (I even almost convinced myself that the worms and frogs wriggle on the hooks because they are having such a good time.)

One day at Mississippi Lake, I had a revelation. I hooked a small pike, and he fought like mad to save his life. It wasn’t a fair contest: a 140-pound fairly intelligent mammal forcing a 3-pound reptile to struggle to his death. As I landed him, he hissed at me in fear and hatred. I had no choice but to kill him for he had swallowed the hook. Suddenly, however, I was disgusted with myself: I realized that there was a sadistic pleasure for me in tormenting and frightening a poor creature that had done me no harm! The impulse within me to find joy or excitement in catching and killing something was primitive, barbaric, evil. I threw away my rod that day...

Fish do feel pain and certainly also feel fear. Zoologists point out that all vertebrates have essentially the same nervous system as do the higher mammals and human being. When a fish is “hooked” and dragged to its death, it feels approximately the same degree of pain as would Mop or Paddy if he or she was pierced through the mouth and pulled across Moodie Street to the house opposite. (Your Uncle Bruce points out that, when the fish is gasping on the floor of the boat or dock, it is literally “drowning”.)

In 2005, the Royal Society, the most prestigious scientific body in Europe, conducted thousands of tests on all species of fresh water fish. The biologists found, for example, that a fish, when hooked, experiences the same degree of electrical charge in its pain receptors as do mammals. Even when a non-barbed hook is used, the pain is equally great. After being hooked and released, a fish is in pain and shock: it does not join its fellows in its “school” but sinks to the bottom and remains almost motionless for several days. And, believe it or not, 32% to 36% of all “catch and release” victims die within four weeks of the experience of being caught: the shock proves to have been too great for them!

Fishermen don’t like to be told these facts — just as people don’t like to be told how Kentucky Fried Chicken forces 800 million chickens each year to live in extreme torture, packed so tightly, six-to-a-cage, into cages so small that the birds literally cannot move! We don’t like to face what we do to our “brothers and sisters”; we are truly the cruelest of all God’s creatures. As the great Dean Inge said, “If animals had a theology, we would be their devils!”

Whether you feel it’s right to fish or not is entirely your business. I just want to point out gently that fish do feel great pain and fear and that fishing for them is anything but “fun” or “sport”. We each have to form our own moral codes. I am ashamed of so much that I did when I was younger — my life has been a failure in many departments. My deepest shame and regret, however, is the way that in my younger years I stood by and witnessed my fellow creatures’ suffering and did nothing about it.

With much love,
Hugh R. L. MacDonald

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