You can’t cuddle with them or listen to them purr, but PETA hopes rebranding fish as “sea kittens” will get people to think twice before ordering them up as fillets.
That’s right, sea kittens. Have a good laugh.
First there were Sea Monkeys — a trademark brand name for shrimp brine that magically turns to life once you follow the proper instructions, something I apparently never did as a kid because all I got was cloudy water — and, of course, Chicken of the Sea — a way of turning tuna into poultry — and now, sea kittens.
As a vegetarian who grew up in Alaska, where people hung carcasses up in their Arctic entryways for most of the winter, I never had much respect for the slithery, slimy piscine. It could be because I worked my way through college in canneries and factory ships along Bristol Bay, catching salmon, cutting salmon, freezing salmon and dreaming salmon. Harvesting fish seemed too easy; how could you respect a species that went in schools to their demise?
That kind of thinking is precisely why the animal-rights group PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — decided to act as the public relations vehicle for fish, said Ingrid Newkirk, the group’s co-founder and president. In an article last week in England’s The Guardian, she said the name sea kittens helps cast fish in a more positive light.
“We felt that when your name can also be used as a verb that means driving a hook through your head, it’s time for a serious image overhaul,” she wrote.
PETA’s pushed the fish envelope before. Various campaigns have touted the personalities of fish, creating ripples of discontent among many states — like Alaska — and people who rely on the industry for their livelihood. My first front-page assignment as a cub reporter happened to be a feature on the then-governor touting the wonders of Alaska canned salmon.
There is some fact for considering fish as more than just an entrée. Newkirk, who calls fish “bright little individuals with their own unique personalities,” cites a University of Edinburgh study that found fish can retain information they learned up to 11 months earlier, and they talk to each other through squeaks, squeals and other low-frequency sounds.
But the main point of Newkirk’s argument is that fish have nervous systems that comprehend and respond to pain. Donald Broom, a science adviser to the British government, told her: “Anatomically, physically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals.”
The cognitive abilities of fish are equal and sometimes surpass those of nonhuman primates, according to Culum Brown, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Brown reports fish can recognize individuals, use tools and maintain complex social relationships.
And there could be a reason many anglers, or, as Newkirk puts it, “sea kitten hunters,” often come up empty-handed: Fish learn to avoid predators by watching experienced fish. Newkirk, quoting other sources, writes that while some fish live in hierarchical societies, others have smaller family units, but all rely on social aggregations that act as an information center where fish can exchange information.
Newkirk also calls commercial sea kitten hunting environmentally catastrophic. The industry has devastated the ocean’s ecosystem, she writes, and scientists warn the damage caused by the industry is irreparable.
Newkirk, in an e-mail exchange, calls the campaign “a great bit of serious fun.” But the campaign has received some attention. PETA’s Web site got a record 44,000 hits in one hour after it was the top story on National Public Radio last week.
The campaign naturally has its detractors, Newkirk admitted. There’s been “lots of reaction, defensively and nastily,” she wrote, “and it’s as if they do not read that it is (a) tongue in cheek; and (b) a fact that fish have feelings and behaviors that we should all take note of unless we ourselves are rocks.”
I know my own personal feeling about fish has changed since becoming the guardian of dozens of goldfish and two huge koi hibernating in my courtyard pond. Watching them in the summer is meditative, and each one seems to have its own personality.
But I doubt if I could ever bond with a fish, unless I could get it to retrieve a ball like my dog Zach. Small steps, I guess. Newkirk said the joy in the campaign comes from the fact that so many children are visiting the site — which allows you to dress your own animated sea kitten and read sea kitten bedtime stories — and leaving comments that indicate a new perspective. “We’ve been getting great comments,” she wrote, “along the usual lines of ‘I never knew,’ ” and ‘Wow, now I’m not going to go fishing.’ ”
Newkirk obviously enjoys having fun while fighting for what she believes in: Respect for all living creatures: “It’s better to be tongue-in-cheek,” she wrote, “than hook-in-the-nose.”
Sea kittens. Could they be the new Sea Monkey?
Visit the site at www.peta.org/sea_kittens/