A fish named Alice by Margaret Hehman-Smith

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1993:

I have an unusual animal I’d like to tell
you about: a fish named Alice who does tricks.
You don’t believe it? Everyone says that until they
see my fish for real. Then they admit they have
never seen a fish do that before; and then they
don’t know what to say or do. On the one hand
here is a koi fish who performs learned behaviors
on cue, and on the other, there is the suggestion
that we should regard fish as intelligent, sentient
beings, who don’t belong grilled on a plate.
My Japanese Imperial koi fish is sleekly
beautiful, pearl-white, 24 years old, about the
size of a small dog. She lives in a 100-gallon tank
in my den. She has been taught to ring a bell, go
through a hoop, react to hand signals, push a ball,

suck a baby bottle, and give me a wet kiss. When
she rings the bell by pulling a marble on a string
attached to the bell’s clapper, she has fun, jerking
it back and forth so hard that sometimes she
almost pulls herself out of the water. She has even
pulled the bell out of my hand and into the water a
few times. She has excellent eyesight. When I
pick up one of her toys and show it to her by the
side of the tank, she watches intently. I can see
her trying to figure out my next move: are we
going to ring the bell? Are we going to play ball?
Sometimes she moves before I do. Then we have
to go back to the starting point because I’m too
slow for her.
One of Alice’s attention-getters is suck-
ing water at the top of the tank so loudly it starts
my dogs barking and running to the door. Or she’ll
slap the water with her tail when I walk into the
den. If I ignore her, sometimes she splashes me.
If I dance in front of her tank, she’ll wiggly-tail
back and forth almost in unison. I’ve been awak-
ened abruptly in the middle of the night by Alice
playing with her marbles. She’ll suck up a marble,
then spit it out, resulting in a loud clank on the
tank bottom. Sometimes she sleeps with her eyes
open on the bottom, hardly moving a gill. When
people see her this way, they think there is some-
thing wrong. Nope, just taking a nap. Spaghetti
is a favorite food of hers, so when I cook pasta, I
have to give her some. Al dente, no sauce, of
course. In the evening I read with my chair locat-
ed next to her tank. She’s there staring at me. I
wave with my hand; she waves back with her
body. This can go on for hours.
Do you know anyone else with a fish for
a pal? Of course not. You say, “Well, I’ve seen a
bunch of fish come up at feeding time and almost
eat out of my hand.” This is a natural, unlearned
fish behavior: they look for food. But whoever
thought they could be trained to perform on cue?
Our folklore, which is what “everybody
knows,” claims that fish are non-thinking,
unemotional animals who cannot learn from expe-
rience. Virtually every human being who ever
lived would agree that fish are stupid. People say
fish don’t have feelings, that they feel no pain,
that they are cold-blooded. These universally held
assumptions are completely wrong.
Over 20 years ago my late husband, the
noted animal behaviorist Donald Leon Smith,
studied fish in large aquariums in his lab at
Anaheim, California. He discovered that every
fish he tested felt frustration and fear. They also
experienced pain, fatigue, and hunger just as your
pet dog might. Some species of fish appeared to
be able to form strong emotional attachments to
other fish––of the same species, of different
species in occasional instances, and some fish
responded similarly to their human caretakers.
Donald observed the behavior of many fish who
are even more intelligent than koi: Jack
Dempseys, Clarius cats, comet goldfish, oscars.
He concluded that the intelligence level of the
brightest fish, the oscars, would easily compare to
that of dogs or wolves.
Animal behavior is not determined by
whether the animal lives in the air, on the ground,
or underwater. Rather, it is determined primarily
by how the animal makes a living. Specifically,
an oscar and a wolf make their livings the same
way: by stalking and killing game. Thus their
behavior is similar. Donald learned that both
oscars and wolves form strong emotional bonds.
Their young are unusually playful, and their food-
getting behavior involves sudden, intense output
of energy for short periods of time. Fish, Donald
found, are not nearly as different from other ani-
mals as had been assumed. The only major differ-
ence, he concluded, is that fish live underwater
and their physical characteristics have adapted to
that environment.
During his initial research, in 1969-1970,
Donald trained a koi to play poker with a human
partner. Large playing cards were immersed in the
water inside a plastic panel. The fish would swim
wide around the tank, differentiate between the
images, then come up and nose the desired cards
to produce a food reward. In the early 1970s this
koi, Old Gold, appeared on the television show
You Asked For It, and played poker with host Jack
Smith. The koi won because he was a sharp carp.
For thousands of years no one ever imag-
ined that fish could exhibit the same level of intel-
ligence as mammals and birds. Meanwhile fish
have been killed by the billion for food, for sport,
and for trophies. Most people who catch fish
assert that their victims have few nerves in their
mouths, and therefore don’t feel any pain from
hooks. But physiologists have demonstrated that
this is false. And after watching Alice for ten years
I have come to recognize a variety of physical
expressions, including those of pain. One day
several years ago she jumped out of her tank and
fell five feet to the floor. She slipped out of my
grasp three times before I could safely lift her back
into the water. I thought she had scrambled her
insides. She stayed in the middle of the tank, near
the bottom, hardly moving. She had lost many
scales and there was a cut above her eyes. Her
mouth was tight; her expression was vacant as if
she was in shock. If a fish could cry out, it would
have been then. Her body functions shut down.
With effort, she would occasionally glance my
way, faintly finning. Expecting her to die, I
stayed beside her. Late that night she began mov-
ing around a little. I threw her some food. She
came to the surface and took it. Soon her mouth
began swinging up and down, back and forth. Her
fins started flying, especially the two behind her
gills, which work independently and paw the
water like dwarf arms. Her body swung from side
to side. Each of these is a set of behavior for feel-
ing good and happy. The sparkle came back into
her eyes, and eventually all her scales grew back.
I like the way philosopher Henry Beston
expresses how we should associate with animals:
“We need another and a wise and perhaps a more
mystical concept of animals. For the animals shall
not be measured by man. They are not brethren.
They are not underlings. They are other nations
caught with ourselves in the net of life and time,
fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of
I would like to include fish, who are so
often and so thoughtlessly netted. Every time I see
fish in a market swimming around in a tank wait-
ing to die, or a fish already dead, I think of my
koi with her beauty and intelligence. I stare with
sadness at a doomed catfish and think, “I bet I
could teach him to ring a bell.”
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