When Bangkok announced the closure of dozens of venues in early January as part of efforts to combat a second wave of coronavirus infections, examples included places you might expect to be shuttered during a public health emergency: tattoo parlors, water parks, and nurseries, among others.
Also included on the list, however, were “fish-fighting rings.” Naturally, the announcement raised questions about the Thai practice, its potential for spreading the virus, and how such a blood sport continues despite outcry from animal welfare groups.
Thai fish-fighting contests involve dropping two male betta fish (classified as betta splendens, which translates as “splendid battler”) in the same tank.
Better known as Siamese fighting fish, or “pla kad” in Thai, betta fish are sold all over the world and renowned for their beauty, in particular their bright colors and elaborate fins. But in the fish-fighting game their most desired characteristic is their ferocity.
Male betta fish in particular are extremely territorial. Putting two males in the same container inevitably leads to gruesome fights, with the fish using their teeth to tear at their opponent’s skin, fins and other body parts. Punters gamble on the winner, which is usually decided by a referee, although deaths in these contests have been known to occur. Fish-fighting can attract large crowds, with gamblers packed closely together waving wads of Thai baht in the air, making them high risk for the spread of COVID-19.
“The government is asking civilians to avoid going to crowded places, and stricter rules are being enforced to stop [COVID-19] from spreading,” government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri told VICE World News. “Usually when people go to these places [sports or entertainment venues] they cheer, or rules such as wearing masks or enforcing social distancing are not strictly enforced, so there need to be more restrictions.”
He added that the government will continue to monitor the number of coronavirus cases on a “day by day” basis, and restrictions would only be lifted when authorities decide it is safe to do so.
“The vaccine will not be available until February at the earliest, and priority will be given to health workers, with the public later on. So we ask people to be careful,” he said.
Thailand has weathered the pandemic better than most countries, with 66 reported deaths. The latest restrictions come after months of almost none at all except mask-wearing and minimal social distancing efforts. Fish-fighting was also included in earlier rounds of measures to stop the spread of the virus last year.
Since most gambling in Thailand is illegal, fish-fighting gambling dens typically operate underground, although, as the January announcement makes clear, their existence is something of an open secret. Government spokesperson Anucha directed calls about illegal activities to the police, who could not be reached for comment.
The betta fish is native to Asia, living in the shallow water of rice paddies, ponds or streams. Their place in Thai history is said to go back at least to the 18th century to the time of Rama I, the first king in the current Thai royal dynasty. For centuries, people living in rural areas have collected betta fish from waterways around their villages, using them in fights to determine the champion.
“In the past [fish fighting] was an important part of Thai culture, and people would raise the fish and gamble with them by putting them in the same tank,” said a representative from the Siamese Fighting Fish Gallery on the outskirts of Bangkok, who didn’t wish to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “In the countryside, you could easily find them in places with mud and water. The identity of fighting fish is dark colors and a short tail, and male fish are usually used for fighting.”
Fighting betta fish are bred for their physical features, such as large and strong bodies with smaller fins. But their reputation for beauty has led to them being reared as pets or for ornamental purposes, which has become a point of pride in Thailand. So much so that the betta became Thailand’s national aquatic animal in early 2019, as part of efforts to boost conservation efforts and commercial breeding, while in 2016 a betta fish in the colors of the Thai flag was sold for the equivalent of $1,800.
Miss Universe Thailand 2020 also plans to wear a Siamese Fighting Fish costume at the next global competition, which was postponed due to the pandemic.
The representative from the Siamese Fighting Fish Gallery said that the organization’s role is to support people raising betta fish for ornamental purposes.
“Especially kids who would like to learn the basics about raising and breeding fighting fish … our purpose is to be a place for those who don’t know about fighting fish to learn about them,” the representative said, adding that they had refused to sell fish to those wanting to use them for fighting because they “do not support animal violation.”
Thailand is one of the top exporters of betta fish globally, selling to markets including the United States, Australia, the Middle East and Europe. But a recent study by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) alleged “entrenched neglect and cruelty” in the betta fish supply chain.
The investigation found betta fish confined to small containers with tiny amounts of water, and numerous dead fish, including those on the floor who had likely suffocated or been crushed. Others were found floating motionless in tanks of dirty water, and some were left out of water for long periods of time while workers sorted them for shipping, the investigation found.
“Betta fish may not be able to cry or communicate like cats and dogs, but it doesn’t make their suffering any less,” Nirali Shah, senior campaigner for PETA Asia, told VICE World News. “Betta fish are complex and highly sensitive animals … yet they’re confined to tiny bottles, plastic bags or cups with scarcely a couple inches of water inside for the pet trade. Every look at the betta fish pet industry reveals cruelty.”
Shah also called for the end of events such as fish-fighting, and other activities where animals are forced to fight, sometimes to death. Cock-fighting and bull-fighting rings have also been closed in Bangkok to combat the virus.
“Tradition does not justify cruelty to animals. [These activities] are sadistic, abusive spectacles that should have been relegated to the pages of history long ago,” he said.
The representative from the Siamese Fighting Fish Gallery agreed that using betta fish for fighting is cruel, but argued it will be difficult to end the activity overnight.
“As we know, some parts of Thailand are still raising fish for fighting,” they said.