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Consider the fish

March 23, 2012

I owe the fish an apology.

No, not the Fish, as in the Florida Miami Marlins, whom I plan to continue to mock  for a litany of unoriginal things (their Rainbow Brite uniforms, their apparent goal of setting a new record for most mental instability stockpiled on a single bench, their new home-run sculpture that’s as sparkly as Vegas and as sad as Reno, and their tragicomic faith in the motto “If you gild it, they will come” as they attempt to make a city that doesn’t care about baseball care about baseball) as circumstances dictate and scheduling allows.

I’m talking about the actual fish—the ones who will be living in the giant aquariums behind home plate at the new Marlins Stadium. Perhaps you’ve read about them, or about the animal-rights activists protesting their inclusion in the design of the new ballpark:

“I can tell you even if the glass doesn’t shatter, [stadium noise is] going to cause a tremendous vibration and disturb and upset the fish,” Animal Rights Foundation of Florida spokesman Don Anthony told the local press.

To minimize vibrations from a stadium full of rowdy fans, the temperature-controlled aquariums are suspended on a flexible material called neoprene, but activists think that isn’t sufficient. “No matter how many shock absorbers they build into the system, if there are thousands of fans screaming and jumping during a sporting event it’s going to affect the fish in there,” Anthony said.

Between my 20 years of vegetarianism/veganism and my somewhat fewer years of pouncing cruelly on every ridiculous bit of Marlins-related news, this story was cooked to order for me, and I’m not without a whole school of opinions on the matter. To wit:

It’s clear that the team that designed the aquarium took enormous pains to make it as fish-friendly as possible. Take a look at this article, which describes in detail the bulletproof material surrounding the tanks (its unshatterability recently, and now-famously, tested by having Gaby Sanchez hurl baseballs at it), the air pockets and Neoprene suspension designed to reduce vibrations, the sophisticated piping and lighting systems that will keep the fishies feeling right at home, and the “foam fractionators, ultra-violet sterilizers, micron filters, titanium plated heat exchangers, bio towers,…RO/DI unit, water storage vats with automated top-off and electronic aquarium monitors” installed for maximum pescatorial comfort and safety.

That’s great. But I have to agree with the animal-rights folks here: All the technological niceties in the world can’t possibly nullify the sensory traumas you find at a ballpark. Line-drive foul balls, booming rock music, and stomping, screaming fans (insert obligatory joke about likelihood of same actually occurring at a Marlins’ game) are certain to have an impact on the wellbeing of the ballpark fish. Furthermore, if the design sketch halfway down the last linked article is to be believed, the fans in the front row will have full access to tap and kick the glass, and if you think Zambrano won’t do the same from the other side of the tank at some point, well, you’re an even slower learner than Jim Hendry.

More philosophically, and—to me—more disturbingly: If pescatorial comfort and safety are worth the trouble of crafting a tank that’s roughly as sophisticated as the International Space Station, why aren’t they worth simply allowing the fish to live in the natural environments they were meant to live in? If we care so much about recreating the amenities of a creature’s home, then to refuse to simply let it remain in that home because we’d rather enjoy it in our chosen surroundings is surely the height of human arrogance. I have a similar reaction to omnivores who assuage their anxieties by eating “free-range,” “humanely raised” chickens and cows: On the one hand, great—less suffering is better than more suffering, kumbaya—but if we’re willing to acknowledge that an animal has sufficient dignity and sensibility to deserve a pain-free life, should it really be so hard to take the next step and acknowledge that it has sufficient dignity and sensibility to deserve not to be killed just because we enjoy how it tastes?

And speaking of how things taste: Surely I’m not the only one struck by the gaping cognitive schism required to expend this much effort on behalf of the decorative fish, while encouraging fans to eat their less colorful cousins at Don Camaron’s seafood restaurant on the stadium’s Promenade level. (“Marlin, however,” the article assures us with a wink, “is not on the menu.” Uh-huh. Wait until HanRam’s first run-in with Ozzie Guillen.)

So, as both an animal advocate and a baseball purist (just watch the game, people), I’m disappointed that so many innocent fish have been co-opted into the Marlins’ glitzification effort. There are dozens of issues in the news over which I’m losing far more sleep—Trayvon Martin, the Republicans’ loss of all shame about their own entrenched misogyny, and Chris Carpenter’s tweaked shoulder, to name a few—but given the choice, I’d rather leave the fish out of the ballpark, because given the choice, I’m pretty sure that’s what the fish themselves would prefer. And as David Foster Wallace writes in his excellent essay “Consider the Lobster,” “it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering.”

Why haven’t I written about it before now, then? Busyness shoulders some of the blame, but so does my ingrained and uncomfortable pit-of-the-stomach, here-we-go-again reaction to just about any animal-related story that PETA and its ilk get entangled in, because we all know how these go: 1) Someone does something bad to animals; 2) PETA gets involved, shrilly; and 3) otherwise compassionate, progressive people react with angry denouncements of animal advocates and promises to eat extra bacon in retaliation. It’s exhausting and it’s dull.

But there’s something else. Speaking out for animals—especially the unsexy, unfuzzy ones like fish—is girly. It lays bare a specific quality and quantity of sensitivity that’s stereotypically linked to femaleness. Stand up for the pit bulls, and you’re a badass with a big heart; stand up for the fish, and you’re—pick one—hopelessly sanctimonious, overreacting, looking for things to be offended about, and/or an overprivileged bleeding-heart liberal obsessing over first-world problems.

In most parts of my real and virtual life, I’m unbothered by (and, I like to think, able to refute articulately) those allegations—but, as I realized when I began to consider why I was reading article after article about the Marlins’ aquariums while avoiding commenting on them or writing my own, I’ve been reluctant to put that particular soft spot on display in an arena where I already have to work harder than usual to be taken seriously. It wasn’t a conscious choice. But it took a conscious choice to overcome the reluctance I felt about hitching my woman-who-really-knows-baseball self to my woman-who-also-worries-about-fish self, never mind that the entire reason I started writing a blog was to assure myself and whoever happened to read it that neither of these negated the other.

So I owe the fish an apology. And I want them to know that I’ll remember them the next time I’m inclined, at some deep and wordless place, to shy away from a cause that might brand me as…..exactly the person I am.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2012 3:45 pm

    Thank you so much for the article, and for this blog.

    It’s nice to know that one can be crazy about baseball yet not crazy enough that we forget about fish and Neighborhood Watch shootings. Still trying to figure out that balance here.

  2. Peter Woodruff permalink
    March 29, 2012 7:00 am

    Great work, FL! (Fearless Leader, or Fish Lover)

  3. April 7, 2012 8:04 pm

    Wow. I had no idea… I’m not sure why I didn’t hear about the fish controversy…. thanks for sharing and happy opening week!

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