Imagine that you are walking through an animal rescue shelter. Strolling up and down the enclosure you feel the big, eager, eyes watching you excitedly, hear the barks and whines of dogs yearning for you to glance at them in a desperate attempt to capture your attention. An energetic young white and brown male steals more than your passing glance, he captures your heart. Locking eyes with this dog you make a connection and know that he is the one. You wave over a worker. You ask and point, “What kind of dog is he?”
“Him?” The worker confirms, “Oh, he’s a fighting dog.”
The worker clarifies, responding to your stunned stare. “Yeah, sometimes they’re also called fighters. They get their name because they are aggressive and bred for fighting but that’s okay because they’re a hardy breed. Fighting dogs are very popular.”
Try to picture it: “fighting dog” as a common name for a stereotypically-aggressive breed. Perhaps the worker is referring to a pit bull, a shepherd, or a Rottweiler in this scenario. The type of the dog doesn’t matter, does it? All the name invokes is the terrible, horrific, down-right disgusting imagery of dog fighting. It reminds of the abuses of Michael Vick, and so many others who we hear about, forcing dogs to violently hurt and attack each other for the sake of human entertainment and profit. The dogs are trapped, with nowhere to run and with no other choice, often fatally wounded because of humans who lack empathy. This is something that we, as a modern society, simply do not—and should not!—stomach well at all. Animal fighting is unacceptable. Regardless of animal species, whether it be dog or chicken, we have come together as a society to fight against these terrible injustices. We have begun working together to rid the world of the stereotype that certain animals are meant for our violent entertainment.
Except, of course, for Betta fish.
Betta. Betta Fish. Betta splendens. These common names are perfectly acceptable and accurate in identifying the species of colorful, popular, fish that have become commonplace in households across the world. However, in many places Betta fish are still referred to by the unfortunate origin of their popularity—an origin of animal fighting. Also referred to as fighters and fighting fish, these beautiful species still hold the stigma and harmful stereotype that they exist to fight. To apply this name to any other animal would otherwise invoke rage. There would be outcries. There would be protests. There would a strong voice from the animal welfare communities calling for an end to a harmful and inaccurate name that brings suffering to a living species. But there is no such justice for Betta fish.
The normalization for a name such as “fighting fish” is harmful to the well-being and safety of the species. How so, you wonder? Is it not just a name? Consider for a moment how hearing an idea, an idea often spoken as fact, in multiple places effects your perception. We’ve all heard silly factoids that are taken as truth simply because of how often we hear them, simply because these ideas have been normalized. People say these ideas so much that we often forget to investigate if they are true or not. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks; we only use 10% of our brains; goldfish only have five minute memories; taking vitamin C tablets will cure you of sickness; these are only a small handful of totally and completely untrue so-called facts that most of us believe growing up just because we hear them all the time in our culture. Apply this concept to things we name. If an animal is always referred to as a fighting animal, would it not be normal to assume that this animal is meant for fighting?
Words are powerful. A few letters can be like scattered embers, catching flame and causing fire, able to burn truth to ash. It is up to us to fight the flames, to control the damage and smother the cause. A name like fighting fish not only insinuates that the animal tends to fight but it also suggests that they are meant to fight, possibly enjoy fighting, and that it is normal to fight the animal against others of its kind. And, unfortunately for the poor Betta fish, aquatic species are not often regarded with the same affections as four-legged furry companions we so often associate with needing to protect through animal welfare organizations. Fish are not treated as equals in suffering. Fish are disregarded by society. But fish are living.
They feel pain, stress, panic…they suffer just as any other animal suffers when they are placed in danger. The cost of purchase at a pet store does not determine the value of a life of an animal. A $200 puppy is equal in requirement for care and respect to a $3.00 fish. To own an animal is to respect, provide, and tend to the animal’s needs. This is hard to accomplish when society labels and looks at Betta fish as less than another species simply because of their origin.
It is true that Betta fish were originally popularized and bred to be fought for sport throughout Vietnam, Thailand, Malyasia, India, Cambodia, and other countries that they are naturally found within. It is also true that many breeders in those countries today have a lucrative and popular business in breeding Betta fish that are more aggressive, have bulkier bodies ideal for enduring blows, and are bred from fish that win fights in order to continue in traditional aquatic animal fighting. These breeders often adopt names for their fish lines that highlight their stock’s aggressive personalities and fighting abilities. These names are given to more easily identify their fish as separate from the pet fish that are also on the market. These breeders recognize the power in a name.
These fights between bettas are not limited to Asian countries. Betta fights are held across the world, including in many North American locations. Because fish are not often regarded as animals in many states, and animal cruelty laws tend to leave aquatic species in the dark, the danger is real for these fish no matter where they are bred and bought. Even Western culture dictates that animal fights must only be taken seriously and identified as cruel if they involve dogs, cats, or chickens. Whereas videos or images are immediately taken down online, creating a surge of outrage among animal lovers worldwide, these betta fights remain online. Reporting or flagging these disgusting displays of forced animal suffering on social media yields no results. They are easily found on the most popular video sharing sights and are ignored by moderators in charge of taking down that depict animal abuse. They are “fighting fish” to most people, after all.
Arguments still persist to this day about whether or not fighting Betta fish is cruel. Some supporters note how not all fish are fought to the death and are often deeply cared for by their owners because winning fights gives them money. But, like dogs in a dog fighting pit, these fish are forced into unnaturally small spaces without the ability to run. They are commonly shaken and forced into each other until they fight. They are bit, fins are torn, blood often drawn. Yes, some are separated before death occurs. They commonly return to their owners with tattered, raggedy, fins, chunks of scales missing, and absolutely terrified. Some owners will tend to their fish, healing their wounds to prepare for the next fight, but many will dump their losing animals into the wild because they failed to bring their owners money. Those fish are deemed worthless and abandoned. If the fish were dogs this would not be accepted. If this concept were better understood then calling bettas “fighers” instead of their true names would be sickening.
Animal fighting is cruelty. It does not matter the species. It does not matter the cost of the animal. It does not matter if some animals are removed from fights with only minor wounds. Cruelty is cruelty. The simple association with animal fighting should make names connected with the inhumane sport completely unthinkable. It is time to reconsider how names effect our relationships with animals. A betta by any other name is not just as sweet. A betta by the name of “fighter” is a betta that helps spread the legacy of normalized animal fighting. It is time to move forward and abandon the term all together. Let us call these wonderful species by their true names. Let’s remove the legacy of suffering, the legacy of violence. Let’s let a betta be a betta.