“A Captive Fish is the Same as a Dead Fish.” – A Review of The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt

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Like a lot of people, I can remember a time when I begged my parents to let me and my sister keep pets. Though my paternal grandmother owned an entire coterie of dogs (Poodle-Japanese Spitz crosses, for the most part), those were her dogs, and my sister and I wanted something we could call our own. So first came the rabbits, which we’d only had for a few days before they suffocated to death in the ash fall from the Mount Pinatubo eruption. Some years after that came a pair of lovebirds, which both died due to what I speculate were severe panic attacks after my extremely poor attempts to get them to perch on my finger by reaching into their cage and grabbing at them repeatedly. And then came a pair of fluffy yellow chicks, which actually managed to survive into young adulthood until a visiting grandaunt deemed them worthy to serve up at the dinner table as tinola (they were tasty, by the way).

By that point my parents were running out of ideas as to what they could give us as pets. At the time my sister was still in elementary school, while I was just about to start high school, and neither of them thought us ready to take on the responsibility of caring for something like a dog. In the end, they got us an aquarium full of goldfish, which turned out to be the wrong decision entirely thanks to the lack of enthusiasm my sister and I presented, and the amount of time needed to properly take care of the fish in the first place. While no pet is truly “low-maintenance”, a whole lot more work goes into properly taking care of pet fish – in particular, the fact that the tank needs to be cleaned out on a regular basis. After several months of cleaning out the tank every two weeks, my mother just gave up on the whole thing and gave everything – fish, tank, the whole shebang – away. We did not get another pet until many years later, by which time I was at university and my sister was just finishing high school: the pet dog we’d always wanted.

Despite my own lack of enthusiasm for pet fish, I am entirely aware that many other people find them utterly fascinating, and I can understand why. Watching fish swim around in a tank can be very relaxing: a 2004 study by Purdue University showed that patients awaiting electroconvulsive therapy reported a reduction in pre-treatment anxiety while watching an aquarium. In 2015, the Telegraph reported on a study done by the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University and the University of Exeter showing that watching an aquarium – even one containing only rocks and seaweed, but no fish – reduced stress in participants. And indeed, I have to admit that there is something very relaxing about watching a fish (especially the ones that have long, delicate fins, like fantail goldfish) swimming around without a care for the world.

But for hardcore enthusiasts, fish are not just a means of relaxation (although they can do that for their owners): they are oftentimes something much, much more. It is this aspect of the aquarium trade – the part that the average person on the street, or even the average fish owner, might not understand – that Emily Voigt tackles in her book The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and The World’s Most Coveted Fish.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is about Voigt’s pursuit of the Asian arowana: the “dragon” referenced in the title. Touted as the “world’s most expensive aquarium fish”, it is not popular in the West but enjoys a revered status in Asian countries, where its resemblance to the Asian dragon, considered a symbol of wealth and luck in Chinese culture, makes it a popular pet and status symbol for anyone wealthy enough to afford ownership. Because of this, there is a thriving market for the fish – a market that is not quite as legitimate as it should be, especially in Southeast Asia, the Asian arowana’s home region. After learning about the fish while doing a story about exotic pets for NPR, Voigt “fell down the rabbit hole”, to paraphrase her own words, and decides to use a recently-awarded fellowship to figure out – and write about – just what makes these arowana so special, and why so many people are willing to pay astonishing amounts of money, even commit murder, for them.

The content of the book is very wide-ranging, covering topics as varied as the history of systematics to issues regarding how biology is conducted in the 21st century, but what ties them together is the arowana. Voigt follows the fish from the glitzy pet shows of Singapore to the deepest swamps and rivers of Borneo, Myanmar, and the Amazon, pursuing first the fabled “Super Red” Asian arowana, then the mysterious “batik” arowana, and finally the South American silver arowana. Along the way she uncovers the often-dark realities of the Asian pet trade, as well as the complications brought about by restrictions made by international groups such as the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). She also discusses the romance – and the disappointing realities – of exploration and discovery.

Now, while there is plenty in this book to lure the curious reader down many interesting paths of inquiry, what I find most interesting is why so many people are so enamoured with the arowana in the first place. I find it telling that a lot of the fish’s value hinges on its resemblance to the Asian dragon – and there is some truth to that. The fish’s long, serpent-like body; the large, overlapping scales with their faint metallic sheen; the delicate whiskers and fins; and the way the fish swims, slow and dignified: all of these qualities could easily bring to mind the dragons that dart and swirl through a lot of East Asian art.

However, despite the manifold charms arowana fans like to ascribe to their favourite fish, I think it is rather ugly, with none of the cutesy charm of goldfish or koi. It says a lot, incidentally, that I am willing to call goldfish and koi “cute”, as I am generally indifferent to piscine charms (octopi and squid, however, are another story, as I have a pronounced weakness for boogly-eyed, many-armed cephalopods). Voigt agrees, saying she “found the fish kind of ugly, with its gnarled visage, petulant pout, and wormlike barbels.” On top of that, the arowana is notoriously ill-tempered and aggressive, as this excerpt shows:

The most formidable among [the arowana] (or at least the most acrobatic) is the South American silver arowana, also known as the water monkey for its ability to leap six feet into the air to snatch bugs, birds, snakes, and bats from overhanging branches. (Do not google arowana eats duckling.) In 2008, when a New Jersey an reached into a tank at Camden’s Adventure Aquarium to touch a silver arowana, the fish tried to make a meal of his hand. In his subsequent lawsuit, the victim alleged “painful bodily injuries” and that his three-year-old son suffered “severe emotional distress, headaches, nausea, long continued mental disturbance and repeated hysteria attacks” after witnessing the incident.

And yet, this aggressiveness is also part of what makes the arowana so appealing – especially to men:

The aquarium hobby is traditionally male denominated, and keeping dragon fish especially so. “Arowana is for men,” Ng Huan Tong told me on his farm. “Women don’t like such a creature.” Another Malaysian described the species as an outlaw: “It’s a very aggressive fish—like Billy the Kid.” He shot his fingers in the air and then called the arowana the “Ronald Reagan of fishes.”

All of this plays into humanity’s desire to keep pets in the first place, which Voigt explains in the following excerpt:

The human species is unique in its compulsion to tame and nurture nearly all other vertebrate animals. In his 1984 classic Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets, the cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan characterizes this proclivity as an exercise in power—a kind of playful domination stemming from our desire to control the unpredictable forces of nature. According to Tuan, the keeping of pets reflects our hunger for status symbols, for what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called the “carnal, clinging, humble, organic, milky taste of the creature”, which underlies all luxury goods.

In the case of the arowana – or indeed, in the case of any wild, dangerous animal kept as a “pet” – Voigt expands the above idea thusly:

It occurred to me that the fantasy being enacted with the arowana was not just about seeking some essence of wilderness, something aggressive, and even a bit scary, as I’d come to believe. It was also about the opposite—control. Installing an arowana in your living room may start out as a way of introducing a dark, fearsome beast into the safe, civilized cage you inhabit; but it quickly morphs into a means of conquest. It’s about taking a primordial predator, camouflaged to lurk in black water, and draining its ferocity, until you’re left with a creature as translucent as the bristles of a toothbrush, as bleached as Barbie’s hair.

Conquest, control, power: all keywords that drive the pet trade in illegal wildlife, from orang-utans in urban apartments to chained tigers and lions in Gulf state mansions. It explains why so many people disdain domesticated animals in favour of keeping wild animals, even illegally: a dog or a cat just isn’t the same as a wolf or a cheetah, because they are no longer “wild”.

This applies to fish as much as it does to mammals. Take koi, for example, which are a domesticated form of wild carp. Though champion specimens can command eye-watering prices at koi-centred shows (especially in Japan, where breeding koi can be very similar to breeding racehorses), many hobbyists disdain them because, according to Ralf Britz, a German ichthyologist at the London Natural History Museum, they are “not really fish”:

When Ralf said that koi were “not really fish,” he was pointing out their artificiality. By his definition, true fish were necessarily wild, the beautiful and successful products of evolution by natural selection, elegant embodiments of form following function. The fact that I was so keen to find the wild arowana, that I thought tracking one down would somehow be different from seeing someone’s pet, suggested I might agree with him.

Because of this desire for “wildness”, conservation efforts hoping to preserve wild species and, more importantly, the habitats they live in, are encountering more and more trouble. Even farming is no help. Though arowana that are legal to trade on the open market come from heavily-guarded fish farms in Malaysia and Indonesia, conservationists argue that the focus on farming the fish in captivity can actually stymie more vital, wide-reaching conservation efforts:

Critics…point out that farming removes an important economic incentive to protect nature. Malaysia, for example, has shown little concern with preserving the small jungle streams that made it a center of the aquarium trade in the first place.

Arowana farmers assert that they are actually helping to preserve the species from complete extinction by raising it in captivity, but conservationists argue that farming does not help the cause, mostly because a fish bred in captivity is completely different from a fish in the wild, much like a pet dog is completely different from a wild wolf or coyote:

…none of these pet fish count—at least not according to wildlife biologists. “A captive fish is the same as a dead fish from a conservation point of view,” Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC International’s regional director for Southeast Asia, told me, arguing that no one was going to put captive arowana back where they came from before selective breeding made that impossible—a bit like plunking a dachshund in the tundra.

Though this book, as I mentioned earlier, covers a vast array of topics, it is these threads focusing on conservation and the Asian pet trade that I find most interesting – and also disturbing. Over and over again, it is demand from wealthier countries (China, in particular) that drives the sinister engines of the illegal pet trade. Borders are immensely porous, especially in Southeast Asia, and many poorer countries might be more than willing to sacrifice their rights to important biological hotspots in exchange for a cash boost from a wealthy neighbour, thus implicitly legalising any otherwise-illegal trade in endangered species. Even supposedly squeaky-clean Singapore, with its reputation as one of the least corrupt countries in the world (per Transparency International), does not escape the taint of the illegal pet trade, particularly when it comes to fish.

This reminds me, rather unpleasantly, of China’s current attempt to seize control of the South China Sea, going so far as to steal territory that otherwise rightfully belongs to other countries by terrorising said countries with displays of military force. The South China Sea is part of the Coral Triangle, and is home to a dazzling array of species, many of them endangered. China’s activities in that part of the world threaten not just conservation efforts, but also the livelihood of thousands of people who rely upon the biological wealth of the South China Sea to make a living. Just like Chinese demand for arowana as “lucky pets” is driving the fish to extinction in the wild, Chinese demand for resources is damaging the delicate ecosystem of the South China Sea. Unless some way of curbing China’s expansionism is found and then (perhaps more importantly) strongly enforced, it is possible that it will use up the South China Sea’s resources and leave the area a drained, wrecked husk of what it once was.

When it comes to non-fiction narratives of any sort, the author’s narrative voice can be fairly important, with the potential ability to make or break a book for a reader. If the reader happens to be a fan of podcasts like Radiolab or Invisibilia, then he or she should have no problems getting into Voigt’s narrative, because the book reads a lot like an Invisibilia episode. Again, this can be a deal-maker or a deal-breaker for readers, but in my case, since I enjoy NPR programs, especially Invisibilia, I can say that I am quite happy with the way Voigt narrates the story. The only problem I have with it is that the connections between narrative threads can be a bit loose: something that isn’t very obvious in audio narrations, but are rather difficult to ignore in the written word. Still, it’s not a deal-breaker for me, and will likely not be problematic for other readers, either.

Overall, The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish is a fascinating, and sometimes heartbreaking, look at the trade in arowana throughout the world, but especially in Asia. By trying to track down three different arowana types to their native habitats, Voigt uncovers the darker underbelly that lies hidden beneath the fish’s mystique: an underbelly that, in truth, underscores much of the Asian pet trade. She also uncovers the seemingly quixotic battle conservationists wage against the cutthroat supply-and-demand dynamics of the exotic pet trade, as well as the highs and lows of scientific exploration and discovery. This makes the book an important read for anyone wanting to understand the complicated relationship between the pet trade and conservation efforts, as well as the role that culture and psychology play in both.

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