The other day, I tweeted this heartwarming (though sad at first) series of photos showing a person rescuing a betta (sometimes known as Siamese Fighting Fish) that was near death, and rehabilitating him in a very dramatic fashion.
This is something that has annoyed me for a long time: whenever I visit pet stores to buy food and embarrassing clothes for my cats, I see a display of bettas, each sitting alone in a tiny plastic cup full of cold tap water, staring. Many stores inform customers that this is the best environment for a betta, since they are accustomed to living in rice paddies with very little water, and they must be kept alone so as to not attack other fish.
When I was in high school, one of those displays caught my eye and I got a betta after watching a few Youtube videos on setting up your goldfish tank and realized I didn’t have the energy to do. So I kept the betta in a tiny glass jar on my desk until it got stiller and stiller and finally died.
I later learned that I had been had: bettas can withstand extremely cramped, cold, and oxygen-poor environments, which aids them during droughts in their native habitats. But humans can withstand tiny cages, and no one uses that as a reason to keep your baby in a lidded playpen for it’s entire life.
In fact, bettas thrive in a tank with about 2.5 gallons of water, preferably heated to around 75-80F.
This brings me to a bit of a quandary. When I see those displays of bettas, sitting lifeless in their cramped little cups, I feel terrible for them and want to help them out. But, purchasing the fish rewards the pet store and creates more of a demand.
Stealing the fish, however, makes the bettas lose a small amount of money for the store, slightly increasing the chances that they’ll stop selling them. It would also free the fish of a horrible life.
If this were a display of dogs kept in cramped containers and I asked if it would be moral to steal a dog and give it a happy life, I suspect most people would agree that it is. Fish are lower on the food chain, and we’re not even sure how much they really experience pain and discomfort or happiness and relief. We can, though, imagine ourselves (or a dog or a cat) in a similar situation and confidently say that it would suck. To put it mildly.
So having been entertained by Skepchick commenters’ recent foray into debate over utilitarianism, I put it to you: is it moral to steal a betta?