27 January

Do Fish Have Emotions?

by Jon Katz

Maria and I bought a Beta, a/k/a Siamese Fighting Fish. I used to breed them to make money when I was a kid. We got this one by accident, we ordered some water lettuce plants for our fish tank, and it was too big, so we put the plants (Maria does not kill plants or throw them into the garbage) in a big bowl and then got the bug to put a fish in there.

Beta’s are a good choice, they can be beautiful fish, and they want and need to be alone, as they will kill females or males given a chance. We put a snail in with him to keep him company; they are hanging out together.

These fish are usually sold in small bowls, which gives me the creeps a bit, he has a pretty nice and spacious tank here. These fishes are popular, but few last long in human captivity, they need more care than the fish stores say they do.

They are ethereally calm, almost mystical, they love to lurk around roots and it is surprising to see them flair up in fury when one male sees another – I guess they are like humans in this way.

Our fish will never see another male up close in his life, but we will give him a good place to live, and I think he and Maria have already bonded. The small tank looks great with the lettuce plant floating on top.

I’ve seen fish connect with people. Some recognize people and voices. I’m not sure I can call that emotion.

In this place, Bedlam Farm, creativity is a common faith, the glue. This morning Maria and I were both hovering over this new tank with our cameras. Maria is making some gorgeous art with the fresh fish and her new iPhone camera, and I got drawn into the idea of studying fish photographically to see if they have what we would call emotions and if I can capture any of those emotions in my photos.

In my mind, my photos are all about emotion; I don’t take pictures unless the heart tells me to. I saw a remarkable thing this morning, Maria came up to the glass, and the fish came up to her, they were nose to nose, and she spoke to the fish – she is calling him “Princess” at the moment – and he seemed to be listening.

After that, I began thinking about how best to try to capture the emotions of a fish photographically. This one is beautiful and calm – these fish are called the “Peaceful Warriors” – and this image shows feeling to me as the fish approaches a food pellet to consider and nibble on.

I guess everything is grist for this mill around here, but I love a creative challenge, and I think this is one.


  1. I agree with Maria about not throwing away any living things. None of my plants can have a DNR status until they are beyond any hope. I will do my best to keep a stick alive. In reference to fish emotions, it will come as no surprise to Maria but my son that chose surgery for his mouse and has now just graduated from a nursing program, also bonded with his goldfish. They would come to the surface when he talked to him, even without food. He also was able to teach tricks including swimming through a ring he would hold in the tank.

  2. We had an outdoor fish pond and the fish would come up at feeding time. Later, raccoons began ravishing the fish population and at that point the remaining fish were frightened and would not come to the surface when a person was there. Also, I don’t “throw away” plants, but I do compost them. They then become a humus rich “soil.” Do you and Maria have a compost pile, Jon? Great for the garden and flower beds!

  3. Years ago I had a backyard pond that was inhabited by crawfish (it’s a Louisiana thing). Each evening I would bring a glass of wine and fish food pellets that they would come and take from my fingers. Anything can be tamed and loved by food.

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