This originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly Q&A series about U.S. culture featured in my newsletter.
So, I get why we can’t (won’t) eat our dogs. But what about pet fish?
Oh, goody! Lesley’s question gives us the opportunity to complicate our understanding of the basic cultural categories that inform our interspecies relationships, and explore what happens When Those Categories Collide…
We can think about animal-human relationships in terms of relative proximity. In the very first issue of this “advice” column, I addressed the idea that non-human animals exist on a continuum of proximity-to-humans. This continuum can be traced using the concept of edibility. Animals that humans consider to be edible (“fair game,” if you’ll indulge me) fall into a particular span on the proximity continuum: they are close enough to humans to be mundane, but not so close that they are emotionally important. In the U.S., the edibility span is where we will find cattle, pigs, and chickens. Different cultures categorize animals differently along the continuum, and for Lesley’s question about pet fish, we’ll stick with mainstream U.S. culture.
Now you might want to have a Dramamine for this next part, because we’re about to take a mobius-trip.
The meanings of animals change with practice—the cultural category a given animal is in depends on how humans interact with them. Conversely, our interactions with animals are bounded, imperfectly, by these categories. Proximity dictates practice, which dictates proximity. It’s a reciprocal loop of mutual influence. It’s also helpful to remember that emotional proximity maps onto physical/categorical proximity, thereby correlating with edibility. (Sea-sick, yet?)
Anyway, the upshot of this is: Pets are animals with whom humans maintain close physical relationships and develop emotional ties. Humans also avoid eating pet animals for supper.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about fish? An excellent question. In the U.S., fish can occupy different categories depending on how humans interact with them: exotic, edible, and pet. It’s the interaction that can transform a fish into friend, foe, food, or instagram subject.
Pet fish occupy a particular position within the pet category because they create an intersection of the exotic and pet categories, neither of which make them edible. Whereas “normal” fish (think tuna, salmon) are categorically edible, pet fish are decidedly not food…unless you’re Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. But the movie understands him to be a psychopath, reinforcing the normative categorical structure of animal-human relationships.
We keep pet fish close to us, so they become like-us to the extent that they become inedible. Exotic pet fish are doubly inedible. But we do not keep pet fish as close to us as we keep, say, a pet dog. Pet fish live out their lives in tanks, whereas pet dogs live out their lives without this extra physical separation. The relationships are different, the interactions are different, and their relative edibility index is correspondingly different, as well.
At the same time, many pet fish are also “exotic” in the sense that they are not typically the types our culture eats. Do you know anyone who keeps a sturgeon in their office? (Don’t answer that.)
In conclusion, because of the ways we interact with them, pet fish simultaneously occupy two inedible categories on the proximity continuum. Take your pick—just don’t fry up that betta for your next dinner party.
For more background on the history of pet keeping in the U.S., check out Pets in America
by Katherine C. Grier.
In 2010, mid-way through writing my MA thesis about the category of cow that’s created in a petting-zoo, I had the fortune to hear Donna Haraway give the keynote address at the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s “Nature Culture” conference. Conference attendees were split into camps: those who believed nature and culture were separate and that categories were useful, and those who believed categories were no longer useful in understanding the interactions among beings. Haraway had recently written a book called When Species Meet, which explores human-animal “encounters” and posits that humans can become “companion species” with other species of animal, “becoming with” one another. After her keynote, John Law was charged with responding. He asked Haraway about fish, positing that dogs are easier to connect with—thereby becoming a companion species—than fish. I believe he said something like, “just look at it!” (Sometimes it’s difficult to break free of one’s cultural categories.) Haraway suggested that one could ratchet-up mediated ways of responding when it comes to human-fish relations. Somehow, there would be a way to create intimacy across the median of diversity. (Underwater, no less!) Law seemed stuck on the problem of “significant otherness.”
Come for the backlash against vegetarians; stay for the Oster eggs puns.
While some thought and research does go into answering these questions, this is largely armchair anthropology, brought to you by someone who left academia in 2010. There’s a very good reason I’m no longer a “real” anthropologist, and it’s called Fieldwork Talking to Strangers.
You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.