Is Keeping an Aquarium Cruel?

I was thinking of what to get Anupa for her birthday and was considering one of these cool EcoSpheres that you sometimes see in science fairs. It’s a completely self contained aquarium that’s sealed and requires no maintenance other than keeping it in a non-dark place. It lives for several years and consists of tiny shrimp that eat the algae who in turn are fed by the shrimp’s waste. The energy comes from a little bit of sunlight and that’s it. It looks very pretty, elegant and most importantly is hassle free.

I was reading up on Wikipedia about how the eco system works. There was a section where some were saying that the shrimps were slowly poisoned and live a miserable life. I don’t know how true this was, but I erred on the safe side and decided not to buy it. This made me think of a larger question – are aquariums in general cruel to fishes?

I may be wallowing in mistaken anthropomorphization here, but if I were a creature I wouldn’t want to spend my entire life in just one house or room. My entire life! Swimming around from one end to the other. Animals in cages have been known to become frustrated and pace, banging their heads on their cages and go insane. So the need to have freedom isn’t just a human one. I don’t know how a fish feels, but the kind of lives they have in aquariums must not be pleasant.

For this reason I’ve avoided keeping fish as pets. There are many opinions giving reasons why keeping fish is ok. They don’t have to compete for food, there’s no danger from predators (in a well kept aquarium) and their environment is controlled. All true of course. But going by the behavior of some animals in zoos, it must be quite a frustrating life with no stimulation and no chance to play out the course of their lives.

At least with other animals like dogs we have indications of their mood. Happy faces mean happy dogs. Cats of course come and go as they please. But how do you tell a fish’s mood? There’s no indication or give away. They could be happy or miserable and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference! Since I have no way of gauging a fish’s mindset, I have no choice but to make assumptions. Otherwise there will always be the nagging suspicion in my mind that I’m imposing a horrible torture on this creature.

So what do you think – is keeping an aquarium cruel to a fish and in the absence of evidence, how do you deal with this lack of knowledge?


  1. I think only dogs and cats like to live with humans – it’s cruel to bring any other animals home, unless they are hurt and need a temporary or permanent home.

  2. Mysoul says:

    I feel keeping any animal to live according to the rules of human whims and fancies is cruel. Whether we keep a dog, cat, bird, fish, iguana, snake etc. we are somehow not allowing them the life they would live out on their own. We could argue that given the decimation of natural habitats, we are doing them a favor/good by keeping them as pets. But its just me, I feel like unless you have an estate of a few hundred acres where you do allow the animals to roam free, keeping animals within confined spaces is cruel.

    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Mysoul
      As far as dogs go, I think they’ve been specially bred to live with humans. They’re hard wired to seek out and respond to human company. That’s why they can also read our faces and we can read theirs. Wolves don’t have as much of these qualities.

      Cats are a bit of a mystery to me. They clearly don’t mind human company and take pleasure from us rubbing them et. But I can’t see anything on their faces to indicate they have loving feelings towards us :)

      Fishes are a complete enigma. Just like birds. They haven’t been bred to live with humans because we expect nothing from them other than sit in one place. So I’m pretty sure it’s not good for them to be with humans in a bowl.

      But yeah – having a dog is perfect if you have a huge space for them to run around in, explore and get their paws mucky :D

      • In reply to bhagwad
        Bhagwad, having raised many kittens, I can tell you that cats do show a lot of feelings. My cat didn’t leave my pillow all of the day before yesterday because I had fever and he could sense I wasn’t comfortable, (the dogs didn’t leave my side either but that is genrally expected). He doesn’t eat unless all of us are eating, likes his breakfast when I have my morning tea, has an excellent vocabulary understands – fish (he doesn’t eat, but gets most excited, ate when he was a kitten), royal canine, brush, go out, come, get down, the names of the other two four legged family members. He also knows how to ask someone to get up from where he wants to sit (and that’s not really brattishness, he feels safer in some places, because of his small size, it matters, some other places are warmer and more comfortable).

        Cats are loved so much because they show affection by trusting us – it’s not curiosity but trust that gets cats hurt. Like having grown up with two patient dogs at home, he is likely to trust other dogs too.

      • bhagwad says:

        In reply to Indian Homemaker
        That’s good to know IHM :). I think now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ve seen cats display a few emotions too…

  3. Mysoul says:

    I think if we live around anything living long enough and observe them long enough, we can tell what their expressions are within their own terms. We are able to read the dogs, because we have a long history with them. My grandparents could read the expressions on their cattle and ducks too. They could tell what the birds were twittering about too. I chalk it down to having lived around them for all their lives, they knew from observing.

  4. tp says:

    I quite agree with you on this. I do think that it is cruel to keep fish in an aquarium for the same reasons that you do. Very sad for them :(

  5. Hi. Nice article. Nothing is more cruel that this absurd thinking. It seems, we take the concept of cruelty beyond all logic and sensible limits. That way…I think entire evolution of homo sapiens can be labeled as Cruel. KRV

  6. Ramakant says:

    Keeping fish is the best thing that one can do in this economy. They look good when swimming around and they taste great too. I always eat them when I get the feeling that they are suffering in their tiny little aquarium. It is the only humane thing to do.

    Perfect for a lazy sunday afternoon with nothing to do. You can watch them all day and eat them in the evening with rice. I love fish, they look good, they taste great. What more can one ask for?

  7. Clueless says:

    I really don’t think fish have the mental capacity to feel depressed that they are living in a bowl. Certain kinds of fish may not do well in confined spaces as they need bigger areas to survive. But as long as their needs are met, I don’t think it makes a difference.

    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Clueless
      Thing is, I don’t know. There was a time when blacks were considered “sub human” by the whites and were assumed to not have the same mental capacity to love and vote. Same for women at one point of time. So I’m very wary of dismissing the capacity of sentient creatures.

      We know that tigers, leopards etc hate being caged. What do we really know about fish?

      • Clueless says:

        In reply to bhagwad
        I think “fish don’t have the mental capacity” is different from when other races were considered “sub human”. The fish’s mental capacity is not an opinion. It is a fact backed by scientific research. If you look up the anatomy of a fish’s brain, it is made for the most rudimentary of brain functions and emotion ranks high on the complexity scale. I am sure you can dig through the internet and find papers that will say this.

      • bhagwad says:

        In reply to Clueless
        All emotions in general? What about fear? I think fear is one of the most basic and primal emotion. Every sentient creature can feel it.

        Actually, it seems that fish have personalities as well:

        While it’s true that we need the hardware for emotions, it’s pretty clear that we know next to zero about how the brain actually works, so until we learn more about this whole “consciousness” thing, it’s best to treat all sentient creatures as being able to experience physical and psychological pain.

        I draw the line and consciousness. I don’t believe plants have emotions or are capable of feeling. Ditto for a foetus. But insects, fish, birds etc. are a different manner.

  8. Ashwathy says:

    Never felt comfortable about restricting movements in a box for any pet, be it an aquarium for fish or a cage for birds. Apart from the fact that you do not know how to figure out if fish are happy or not (parakeets/parrots are more expressive that way, if trained in the right way)…there is also the problem of maintenance.

    I’d always go for a dog….
    Like you said, they are hard-wired for human company :)

    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Ashwathy
      I think any domesticated animal will do since they’ve been bred with humans for thousands of years. Fishes are not domesticated since they haven’t been bred for any specific non physical traits.

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