Fishing is extremely popular across the U.S. — and for people of all ages. In fact, in 2017, there were approximately 11.6 million youth participants (aged between six and 17 years) in fishing in the United States.
For the majority of American households that own at least one pet, it seems unfathomable that one could ever leave your animal to fend for itself. But sadly, it happens all the time. When one man in North Carolina was evicted from his apartment, he left behind his pet in dirty conditions with no food or proper care. As a result, the man not only lost his apartment but was also charged with animal cruelty.
The twist? The pet he left behind was a freshwater fish.
When 53-year-old Michael Hinson was forced to leave his home, he also left behind a six-inch-long Oscar fish, a beautiful species that’s also known for being highly aggressive. The fish was left in a dirty tank and in poor health, a fact that was discovered by authorities when they entered Hinson’s former home. While most aquarium owners will go to great lengths to ensure their fish tanks are kept clean and include special touches like coral (which take around 15 minutes to acclimate to a tank), Hinson apparently didn’t care about keeping his fish in “deplorable” conditions, as officials noted. It was later determined that the fish was suffering from a parasitic condition known as “hole-in-the-head disease.” Authorities brought the fish to a local aquarium store, where employees have since been nursing the fish back to health. The fish was put on a special diet and is also being treated with medication. Pet store staff speculated to the local newspaper that the fish likely survived by eating the cockroaches that fell into the tank, which illustrates just how disgusting the overall living conditions might have been.
Officials arrested Hinson and charged him with one count of abandonment of an animal and three counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals. Although this is the first known animal cruelty case involving pet fish in the county, the local lieutenant told news outlets that the life of a fish is no less precious than that of a dog or a cat.
However, that’s not the way the law is written. North Carolina law defines the animals protected from cruelty as “every living vertebrate in the classes Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, and Mammalia except human beings.” Fish are vertebrates, but they’re not explicitly named in the law — meaning that the district attorney was forced to drop the charges against Hinson (after Hinson posted a $4,000 for his release). Even though other animals regularly eaten by humans — such as chickens and cows — would have been protected under the law, North Carolina doesn’t seem to see them in the same way. More than 60% of people who fish for a hobby are younger than age 45, with the majority of people viewing fish as a source of food rather than as a part of the family like a dog or a cat might be. In fact, fish are generally excluded from state laws that are meant to protect animals, though some pet fish may be protected. Why this is isn’t immediately clear, though it may be easy to separate fish from our world when they have to live in a totally different element.
For now, Hinson is a free man. But New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David chastised Hinson’s actions in a statement: “We take a very dim view of anyone who would abuse any creature great or small and appreciate [animal services] enforcement of the laws to protect vulnerable animals.”