Is It Moral to Steal Betta Fish?

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?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Depends. Do you have a better home for them? These aren’t fish you can just turn loose in the local pond.

    Also, if you’re going to go down that road, the aquarium systems at any of the big warehouse stores, like Walmart, are ABOMINABLE. You ought to go liberate all of the fish, every one of them, right down to the hardy little goldfish.

    Then you have another problem: last summer, I had to stock my lab system with pet store fish, because of a small catastrophe at the zebrafish stock center. It was a miserable experience: it was like importing every fish disease known to humanity into my system. We spent 3 months chasing down and treating all the problems.

    So sure, rescue that sad spotty wilting fish, bring it home…and give all your other fish the spotty wilts.

    1. This is just the “If I can’t do everything then I can’t do anything” argument. I don’t buy it anywhere else (i.e. social justice) so I don’t think I buy it here. There are lots of available options. I can decide to save one. I could steal one and encourage others to do the same. I could steal a lot and humanly euthanize the fish. I could pick which fish I think live in the worst condition and start there.
      Just because I can’t take all the fish in the world and help them doesn’t mean I can’t do anything at all.

  2. I hate moral triage. Not in the sense that I think it shouldn’t be done: it absolutely has to be. Just that it brings a lot of mental anguish over things where I don’t know how much effort to expend.

    What about that poor minimum wage employee, complying with corporate policy about display fish? He might lose his job if there’s too much loss. The company won’t reform and instead might hurt a human being for the fish. Then you’ve accomplished a negative moral gain under most understandings.

    If we’re being utilitarian about saving the Betta, we have to be utilitarian about the side effects. And it’s complicated.

    1. Do retail employees get fired because there are too many thefts from a store? If there’s reason to suspect the employee’s involved, I’d guess yes, otherwise, probably not. The other question there is how big is the impact? How many fish can care for or find good homes for? Is this a movement with hundreds of people in each of hundreds of cities? Then the retail employee isn’t likely to get fired, the policies of the stores are likely to change. But is that number of people involved likely to happen? I think not.

      1. In smaller stores, employees can be held arbitrarily accountable for loss prevention, up to the whims of their direct superiors.

        In larger stores, there’s a clear understanding that loss happens at a statistically predicable rate, and no one could possibly police it all.

  3. In college, my boyfriend and I bought a betta fish from Walmart that was already sick and did not survive the week. A rumor I heard is that they keep them in confined spaces and cold water to keep their metabolism suppressed so that customers can’t tell the difference between healthy and sick fish.

    The second Betta we adopted, Sigur Fish, lived for many years in a spacious tank with adequate fresh water. Healthy and well-cared for Betta fish are lovely companions – they can recognize their owners and show appreciation and even affection for loving care. When Sigur Fish died, I was surprised at how much I missed the little guy.

    I think the question, “Is it moral to steal a betta fish from a store to give it a better home?” misses the third path – asking to rehome the fish for free (which is what the blogger did, it seems), and advocating for better conditions for store betta fish and/or an end to for-profit betta fish breeding.

  4. Ok, replying above made me think about this differently than I initially was. I was going to say that a large scale movement doing this could have an effect on store policies and be effective and therefore moral. But one or a handful of people stealing a handful of fish would only affect the fish stolen, and the big chain isn’t going to suffer much impact, so whatever. It’s not immoral, and possibly moral.

    But then I thought some more. Whether you pay for it or not, every fish you take has to be replaced, which keeps the whole industry going and convinces suppliers there’s demand. So maybe one or two fish don’t matter, and maybe a whole lot change display policies to possibly achieve better conditions (but I’m not sure about that, they probably just lock them up, but conditions don’t improve) and any significant number of stolen fish drives up the number bought from suppliers and increases the size of the industry – net negative. So not moral.

    Of course, I’m pretty opposed to the entire exotic pet industry, so that skews my view. If you think that the people who supply the bettas to the pet stores are not evil, just the pet stores, then the analysis would be different.

  5. I have an acquaintance who’s been known to occasionally pester pet shop staff into giving her bettas that appeared to be ailing, some of which apparently recovered and lived long, happy lives. It seems to me that might be more ethical than either stealing or buying them: you don’t pay, the loss to the store is above-board and agreed upon, and they know shoppers are aware of any bad conditions in the betta…bowls? (I tell my fish that they came out of margarine tubs, so it just occurred to me I don’t know if there’s a real term for those things.)

  6. I’m going to have to mirror the ambiguous answers above. It might be morally well and good for that individual fish you are rescuing. That’s just one fish, and making a better life for one fish, imho, is worthwhile.

    However, this extends far beyond one fish. If this turns into a massive effort that sees many fish being taken from stores, that puts extra stress and possibly negative consequences for the employees at the bottom rung of the ladder. Worst case scenario, people who need the work wind up losing their jobs and this can create a devastating domino effect on their quality of life and that of their family.

    The way betas are treated in stores and sold under the false information they’re fine in awful conditions is absolutely immoral. So I think change needs to come from the top in the form of campaigning for pet store reforms, from going to individual stores and educating the owners that they’ve been fed bad information by their suppliers, and then educating the public who bring home these fish on how to fulfill their needs so they can thrive and not just barely survive.

  7. Dear Fishima —

    What if we ratcheted the moral question up past mistreated dogs to mistreated human children? So it would be, I guess, Vigilante Foster Care? The Gone Baby Gone litmus test?

    And wouldn’t it be kindest of all to put bettas in a tank with lots of other fish they could fight and kill? If such is their nature?

    An ethical quagmire indeed.

  8. I’ve been involved in a catnapping. The neighbour got a kitten that they were told was a boy cat. When boycat went into heat the first time and was getting it on with our actual boycat it was clear that boycat was actually girlcat. The owners were spotted kicking girlcat in the headto keep her out and there was much drama. so girlcat was put in our place so that she wouldnt be beat up. Taken to the vet, made sure she was healthy. Girlcat had three beautiful kittens (partially cared for by boycat) all given away. We promptly had her fixed and she lived to be ten (she died of a tumor in her pancreas).

    As for the Betta. I had two tries of Betta fishes and had similar problem as muddgirl. Unfortunately after the second one died after three weeks instead of two days and I decided that maybe it was best not to keep one. I think that I would try again if I felt I was the only hope for the fish.. but in a way it would be harder for me to trust I could do what this fish rescuer did. In a way I think it’s actualy harder than a puppy or a kitten.

    1. If you read up on betta fish, there is a lot you can do for them even if you bring one home that’s been living in poor conditions. I brought one home from the store on a whim knowing nothing about them, and though it was a struggle, he ended up living for four years. I just had to do a lot of research to learn how to care for him, but once I learned, he was very low maintenance compared to a dog or cat. Even though they are tiny fish, there are a surprising amount of vitamins, medicines and dietary tricks that can help them when they are sick or struggling and there are some great resources on the Internet.

  9. Years ago, I had a cat friend I visited every time I went to get the mail, since our mailbox was in front her owner’s house. She was incredibly sweet and was starved for attention. One day, in a pouring rain, I took her in, despite concerns that there might be conflict with my own cats. I discovered that she was having terrible diarrhea, so when the rains stopped, I rang her owner’s doorbell to inform them about the diarrhea. They told me about giving her kitchen scraps and liver, and I suddenly knew the cause of her gastric distress. I asked them if I could keep her for a day or two to see if I could improve her condition, and they shocked me by saying I could keep her. I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked, really, since I saw how their brattish children chased that poor, sweet cat. No wonder she was so neurotically fearful.

    In any case, I also became friends with their next cat. One day, they told me that if I didn’t take her, they would bring her to the pound because they were moving.

    I guess these were a different kind of rehoming, but it goes to show that–like children–some people should never have pets.

    PS: The second cat also died of pancreatic cancer at about the same age. She was a sweetie, too.

  10. The answer has to be a question? Are you an alpha? (Alphas are much cleverer than bettas, but they work so hard. I’d rather be a betta, bettas have much more fun.)

  11. If you’re thinking about rescuing bettas, here are a couple links. The first covers basic care and misconceptions, the second is a DIY guide for modifying a larger tank to keep multiples.
    TLDR; Each fish needs at least 2.5 gallons, w/a heater and filtration unit. Or, you can keep an unheated habitat(bowl) in a warm place, and an unfiltered habitat if you change 20% of the water weekly. But no less than a 2-3 gallon bowl for each fish.
    Always have a quarantine bowl for new fish if you’re doing a shared tank.

    I’m not saying you should liberate fish. But I’m not not saying it, either.

  12. I recently made a post in Grounded Parents about my experiences with pets and working as a pet store employee years ago. I may have mentioned betta fish in there.

    If not, one thing I want to make absolutely clear to anyone reading this: do not try to liberate betta fish by putting them in one of the larger tanks. The problem isn’t the male betta attacking other fish (they usually only attack other betta, and fish that look like bettas like fancy guppies), the problem is often other fish will rip the betta to shreds, because they are slow with such tempting flowing fins. Many customers would do this whenever my back was turned or if I stepped out of the department for a moment. I managed to save most of them except for some that a well meaning animal liberator put into the multitier live plant tank… The water was far too cold and the bettas froze to death.

    When betta reproduce, they literally produce over 100 of offspring at a time, which need to be separated before very long. They end up in cups or jars whether or not it is a pet store or an individual breeder breeding them as a matter of logistics. Fortunately, at least for the large national chain pet store I worked at, the turnover was very fast and we did not promote keeping betta in small containers at home (the myth is hard to kill, and often we could not convince the customers themselves to stop doing it not the other way around.)

    I recommend at least a 10 gallon for any fish. 2.5 has many of the same drawbacks as the cup itself… Low volume allowing for huge chemistry fluctuations, temperature swings (even with a heater), and potential oxygenation problems vs too much turbulence from air stones in a small space. It is doable but not recommended for the inexperienced or apathetic fish owner.

    One other thing I have noticed with bettas is they tend to get these insane tumors or cysts when they reach a certain age that eventually explode, leading to a gruesome death. I have wondered if this is a result of the inbreeding they’ve gone through for their colors and fin shapes but I have not looked into it enough to be sure.

  13. I also just want to add, fish like pacu and goldfish actually have a far worse fate in my opinion than the bettas overall. They just tend to not look as bad in the store. It is what happens after they are sold.

  14. I realized I never actually answered the title question. I don’t think there is an absolute moral truth here, especially from lack of knowledge. For example, some might not condone stealing for any reason. Some might to save an abused puppy (and I have known at least one person who stole a dog from someone for that reason).

    However, if as you wonder, fish perhaps cannot feel pain or discomfort it may be more apt to compare stealing an ill-kept betta to stealing a neglected houseplant than to a dog. I have wondered about that myself, but I assume by default in the absence of other evidence that fish experience pain and discomfort in some way. I can definitely say that bettas have been stolen from pet stores for decades, however, without any effect I have seen.

    The chain stores I can say are definitely receptive to public pressure and I have seen numerous changes in response to that. I would think if a movement gained a lot of momentum and/or suggested an alternative stocking system for betta it could conceivably come to pass.

  15. There are people who breed bettas and understand how to properly care for them, so I would say purchase a betta from them and maybe protest the treatment of bettas at pet stores. There was a pet store near me that sold puppies and was subject to so much pressure from the public that they stopped and had adoptions for rescues only from then on. You would just need to get enough people that care about fish (and they are out there) to organize

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