Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tails from the Heart (Part 2): The Soul of Gamma Ray

It took me a long time to realize that there were a whole lot of myths surrounding fish.   Here are some of the debunked myths I've gathered that are relevant to this story:

1) Fish do not have a three-second memory
2) Fish are capable of feeling pain
3) Fish have individual personalities

Okay, roll your eyes or laugh at me.  My degree is in zoology and I've had a passion for charismatic megafauna, most of whom have eyelids and/or fur.  Or as one very smart person said, "animals with souls".    So my interest in fish essentially consisted of an interest in Fish That Can Eat You.  

A Fish That Could Eat You if He/She Wanted, But He/She Will Probably Settle For A Toilet Seat

Like most children, I fished and had a fish tank.  However, my early ichthyological education was very limited as I was surrounded by adults who knew a lot about Business, Finance, Mathematics, History, Religion, and Philosophy.  They did not, however, have a deep interest in Biology.  Yet, they strove to answer all of my questions.  My passion being in animals, most of my questions were on that topic.  

For example, when an unfortunate bluegill found itself on the wrong end of my fishing pole via a hook in its eye socket, I immediately reacted with concern.  I found the nearest Adult and told them what happened.  

"Does it hurt him????" I'd ask.

"No," replied the Adult, attempting to pull and twist the hook out, making the eyeball bulge and bleed.  "Fish can't feel any pain."

"Why is he flapping his tail like that?!"  Oh, the horror!

"Uh, he wants to swim!" the Adult said.  "He's just happy we are letting him go!"   

Lip-piercing is all the rage

I think I knew that the fish was in a tremendous amount of pain, but I didn't want to admit to myself that I'd caused this horrific injury to a critter just looking to eat some suspended worms.   So for years, I told myself that fish couldn't feel pain.  I didn't do anything to cause pain to fish, but I didn't worry myself when I went fishing.  I figured hey, even if fish feel pain, they probably don't have a sense of Self and don't really know what's going on to them.  The hubris of humanity!

Luckily, thanks to my budding career in marine mammal training, I spent a lot of time around fish.  I got to know playful groupers, cunning eels, and curious mangrove snapper.  But perhaps the most special of all fish I've ever met was a cow nosed stingray named Gamma.

Some cow-nosed rays

Gamma and her buddy X (ha ha) came to Marineland as a donation.  Getting fish donations is more common than most people realize at aquariums, especially saltwater setups.   Gamma and X came from an aquarium in what I believe was a surf store.  The tank was not the correct habitat for the rays; it was rectangular, and those corners mean bad news for stingrays.  Gamma and X spent too much time slamming into the corners of their enclosure, and as a result caused themselves a lot of injury.   The store owner felt badly for the rays and brought them to Marineland.

Unfortunately, X was far too injured and ill, and died not long after they arrived.  The aquarists successfully nursed Gamma back to good health, and the marine mammal team began training her.  I was one of the lucky people selected to get in on the ground level to start Gamma's training.  

It didn't take long for Gamma to realize where she needed to go to eat when her training session started.  In fact, it didn't take long for us to teach her some basic behaviors: target, dorsal tactile, ventral layout, and even a little follow behavior.  She began to do limited interaction programs, which in turn changed people's view about sting rays for the better.   I fell head over heels for this little fish.

Over a period of a couple of weeks, we started to notice that Gamma was losing weight.  We increased her diet; we always tried to feed her until she was stuffed.  We fed her clams, shrimp, and capelin (a type of fish).  She ate the food readily and to satiation, but she still lost weight.  When our aquarist team could not figure out what was going on with Gamma, they did not hesitate to reach out to other aquariums and ray experts.  They all said the same thing: Gamma had a parasite.

We treated Gamma with what we could, but we were told it was likely a very common but untreatable internal parasite found in the majority of cow nosed rays.  If it was this parasite, we were told Gamma would not survive.  Because veterinary care of cow nosed stingrays (and many other fish) is not necessarily as advanced as that of "Animals With Souls" (remember, fish "don't have feelings"), the diagnostic tests were very limited for poor Gamma.  We basically had to decide if we should assume she had a terminal illness and euthanize her, or if we should keep fighting for her survival on the off-chance she had a curable problem.

We chose to give Gamma a fighting chance.  She swam around her exhibit, but was spending a little more time at the bottom.  Her cartilaginous skeleton was clearly visible through her skin, and she finally stopped eating.  

Despite her lack of appetite, Gamma still came over to her trainer when we'd visit her throughout the day.  Not only that, she would sit on our hand or come by to let us pet her soft, almost velvety wings.  She'd circle back around towards our hands for another rub, then another, and another.  When I commented on Gamma's solicitation of tactile interaction to the head aquarist, he simply replied, "Well, they are social animals."

That gave me pause.  Social animals are typically the creatures we have as pets, or the wild animals to whom we relate.   We think it's completely plausible, even likely, that social animals like dolphins, wolves, elephants, bonobos can form meaningful relationships.  Maybe we go even further to acknowledge common social behavior in parrots, chickens, or meerkats.  But we forget about fish; so many species of fish spend time with other fish in schools.  Setting aside brain size*, why should we be so quick to dismiss the possibility of eyelid-less creatures needing social interaction?

Gamma spent the last of her few days with her trainers and the aquarists.  Although weak and thin, she managed to muster up enough strength to visit any human that came to the side of her pool and rest on their upturned hand.  She passed away one morning, and left an entire group of humans in mourning.  She blasted apart any misconceptions we had about fish, inspired guests who had the opportunity to see her and interact with her, and gave us all the opportunity to peer into the life of an animal we don't usually get to see or even care that much about.  I learned so much from that one, single stingray.  

Some people (especially behaviorists) will read this post and believe there is a scientific way to explain Gamma's behavior that does not indicate the potential for thought or social need.  Her reinforcement history "programmed" Gamma to come over to the human stimulus; not a need for companionship.  I'm not interested in debating the why or the how any animal (including humans) acts.  Social behavior is not some higher cognitive power.  Just because humans have it, doesn't mean it's something elite.  But it is special.  And what is more special than two species coming together to discover something about each other?  For the humans, we humbly learn that maybe we are wrong about how we see "lower" animals.  And for the stingray, she learned to seek comfort in the most unlikely of places when she was terminally ill.   There is nothing more touching or special than that.  

Thank you, Gamma Ray!

My hand and Gamma!

* Does brain size actually indicate intelligence?  Of course not.  Politicians have the same brain size as us.

1 comment:

  1. Cat, I love reading your stories. They remind me of some of my own special interactions. Some of my favorite of these were with rays and fish. Thank you for reminding me that 'Charasmatic Mega Fauna' don't have the market cornered on social delights!