Why fairness is a fishy business

By Moira Billinge

The excited seven-year-old clutched the plastic, water-filled bag in which her fairground prize swam, blissfully unaware of the problems that it was going to cause.

On the way home, the girl's mother called in at a pet shop to buy a bowl into which the goldfish was carefully deposited, beyond the curious gaze of the family dog. Unfortunately, the fish did not appear very happy and floated listlessly around, giving the occasional wave of its tail fin just to show it was still alive.

A few days later, the child's grandparents arrived. They decided that the fish was lonely and set off to the pet shop to find a companion. A bigger tank was selected along with all the necessary equipment. Then it was time to pick a suitable fish-friend from the hundreds of incumbents swimming around and an assistant was asked to scoop up the chosen one.

Spotting the aquatic products in their trolley, the assistant gasped: "Oh, but you can't take a fish until your tank has been set up for three full days!" The child's mum attempted to explain there was not a problem: the bowl at home was ready and was currently the residence of a solitary individual pining for a bit of company. "No!" the assistant squealed, "that means the fish would have to cope with two transfers in three days."

Eventually, it was agreed that the bemused family would take the equipment home and return during the week to purchase the fish. When the girl and her mum did return, they discovered it was 'rest time', when all the lights over the tanks were switched off, and that only later in the afternoon could they collect the goldfish.

The pet shop applied the same strict care guidelines to their rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, mice and rats. Such commitment to the welfare of God's creatures is to be applauded. However, just a few feet away from those pampered pets, the contrast was stark. One tall stack of shelves accommodated heaps of transparent egg box-type containers crammed with live, very large grasshoppers which – with their extraordinary long legs – were climbing over each other and up the slippery sides of the boxes, attempting to escape their ultimate destiny as live bait.

Pet shops evidently consider it unnecessary to extend the same consideration to 'all creatures great and small'. To misquote George Orwell's immortal words in Animal Farm, "all animals are equal but some are more equal than others".

Our problem is that we sometimes apply the same criteria to human beings. A hamster looks good whereas a grasshopper does not, so it is treated less kindly. Someone's skin colour may enable them to access a social advantage in preference to a person of a different racial background. A dialect or accent may be acceptable in one part of the country but disparaged in another.

Recent research found that if a beautiful woman includes her photo with her job application, she may not even get an interview. The researchers say it is likely that women who already work in a company will be jealous of good-looking rivals moving in on their territory. However, the opposite applied to men!

Human beings are capable of kindness and cruelty in equal measure, with crass distinctions, often born of prejudice, determining the equitability of our treatment in a given situation. As Herman Melville, author of the classic American novel Moby Dick, wrote in Mardi and A Voyage Thither: "I am, as I am; whether hideous, or handsome, depends upon who is made judge."