posted February 7, 2023

Many Vegans care for our furry and feathered friends without thinking twice. We have nothing against fishes, but many of us do not give them as much attention as we do to other animals.

Philip on the day of his rescue (top) and months later, fully recovered. Photo from Gwendolyn Church.

“A fish sanctuary is uncommon,” Gwendolyn Church, the founder of the Friends of Philip Fish Sanctuary, admits that upfront.

I met Gwendolyn and learned of her aquarium fish sanctuary during a live Zoom with Our Hen House Flock hosted by Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan. I am a Flock Member, and a different guest is interviewed on the first Friday of each month.

I’ve thought about fishes more compassionately after listening to Gwendolyn’s mission. She says, “When we think of the scale of harm in terrestrial animal farming, it is in the billions. For fishes, that number is in the trillions.”

Her fish rescue began with Philip, as Gwendolyn describes. “There was one little guy in the back [of the pet store shelf] who was just super skinny and pale. His little fins were all just rotted away and gone. So, it was clear that he was going to die. And so, I pulled his fish bowl off the shelf and approached the manager to ask if I could take him home. They let me adopt him for free.”

Like so many rescues and sanctuaries, there are two primary sources for fish—they are either surrendered from pet stores or individual caregivers. Gwendolyn emphasized, “We have a strict policy that we never purchase an animal. So, we’re not going to go to a pet store to buy a fish.”

Stewart the Figure 8 puffer, shortly after rescue from a store. Photo from Gwendolyn Church.

She further states that “most pet stores, whether large or small, do have a policy around sick animals and what they’re allowed to do with them. They may not let you adopt them.”

“The sanctuary itself is fairly small. We fit in that category of a micro sanctuary, but the single room at my house has crept into other areas.” Despite its size, Friends of Philip has over 20 species of fish — there are more than 33,000 different species worldwide.

Fish in pet store tanks are subjected to overcrowding, filthy conditions, rampant disease, lack of enrichment, and/or the ability to exercise and experience their natural behaviors. “You have all these problems, and then on top of that, you have the problem of water quality. These fish are living in and breathing their waste,” Gwendolyn told me.

We know that land animals have feelings and experience pain. I assume that pescatarians think that  fishes don’t. However, Gwendolyn states that there is “…scientific evidence that fish are sentient. They do feel pain. Many fish have very long memories.” I know enough, as an animal lover, not to eat fish. They bleed. They fight to survive when they are flopping around on someone’s hook.

Sasha, a 16-year-old Corydora Catfish. Photo from Gwendolyn Church.

Fishes have personalities and connect with their humans. Gwendolyn said, “Most of our fishes, very quickly after arriving, recognize my fiancé and me. They’ll respond specifically to us coming into the room to see them.”

Further, “Fishes have the ability to play and learn both independently and from others. They form strong social bonds and one species, the Cleaner Wrasse, recently passed the mirror test—the gold standard for determining if an animal is self-aware,” she told me.

Gwendolyn says, “Fish are hardly even considered a pet. Many people want an aquarium because they want a beautiful thing to look at. Most people, hopefully, who adopt a dog, want a companion animal, but many who purchase fishes don’t have that motivation.”

Just like our other animal friends, fish need love and care too. It is easy to focus on someone we can pet and kiss rather than our scaled friends in the water.

I applaud Gwendolyn’s effort to rescue fish and enlighten us all about these incredible animals who need our love and support. If you wish to help, here is the link for the Friends of Philip Patreon.

To learn more, you find Friends of Philip on Instagram @FriendsofPhilip_FishSanctuary or on Facebook.


Photo credit: Eroula Dimitriou Photography

Cherie Hans holds certifications from Dr. McDougall’s Starch Solution and Dr. Campbell’s Plant-Based Nutrition programs. She holds a Master of Science in Bilingual Education from St. John’s University, NY, and a Bachelor of Arts from the City University of NY: Queens College in English and Spanish, and currently teaches adults in English as a Second Language. After graduating from Main Street Vegan Academy, Cherie started the blog Fit and Fifties Vegan. She is from Queens, New York, but now resides in New Jersey with her husband and many rescued cats.


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