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Japan loves its fish, just not frozen into an ice skating rink

An amusement park in Japan closed a skating rink that featured thousands of fish frozen into the ice, after a flood of Facebook posts decried the attraction as 'immoral.'

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    About 5,000 fish were frozen into the ice rink of the Space World Amusement Park. Rick Garcia reports.
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An amusement park in Japan originally touted an ice skating rink with 5,000 dead sprats, mackerels, and other fish frozen into the ice as a chance to “glide across the sea.”

But a flood of public criticism over what some have described as inhumanness forced Space World in Kitakyūshū in southwest Japan to close the attraction early, with the park even considering holding a memorial service for the fish next year.

The criticism and closure of the exhibit follow a global shift in views of morality when it comes to the employment of animals as entertainment. From Sea World and Barnum & Bailey in the United States to Thailand's elephant tours and Zimbabwe's safari hunts, animal attractions around the world are facing new levels scrutiny from a public that has become increasingly concerned about animal welfare.

On Space World’s Facebook page, users described the ice that teemed with sea life as “cruel” and “weird,” according to The Guardian.

One commentator said the exhibit displayed an “appalling lack of morality.”

The operator attributed the uproar in part to confusion over how it placed fish into the ice.

“Misunderstanding spread on the Internet that the fish were frozen alive, but that was not the case. We should have explained more,” a spokesperson told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “We should have explained more.”

The fish were purchased from a nearby fish market and embedded in the ice. One picture removed from Facebook showed dozens of red fish, half-buried in the rink with their mouths open and exposed above the surface.

Pictures of the completed rink showed fish swimming underneath the ice in a variety of patterns and formations. A school of hundreds of black fish appeared to swim around a pillar. Fish also swam in a design that spelled out “hello.” Other parts of the rink showed rays and whale sharks, which the operator explained were simply enlarged photos it placed beneath the ice.

Originally scheduled to stay open until spring, the operators intended for the Ice Aquarium to lure more skaters. Now a spokesperson said the park was considering holding a memorial service next year for the fish instead.

The controversy comes as public attitudes around animal welfare have shifted, prompted in part by documentaries and undercover videos of animal treatment. Following the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” public and policy pressure led SeaWorld to end its orca breeding program and phase out live orca shows by 2019. The SeaWorld parks will instead focus on exhibits that highlight the whales’ natural behavior.

“The announcement today is the humane economy at work, where businesses … realize that doing right by animals is going to eliminate risk and provide economic opportunity,” Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), said at the time of the announcement in March 2016.

“At the root of it is an emerging consciousness among consumers/voters,” he adds. “They’re demanding more from decisionmakers and wanting companies to do better on animal welfare.”

Zoos have also started to close exhibits that feature so-called charismatic species – large animals with popular appeal, such as elephants – in an acknowledgment that they can’t adequately provide for them.

In Thailand, some organizers of ecotourism tours featuring elephants are shifting practices to ensure the animals get adequate rest and care in response to public pressure. In China, managers of a zoo and aquarium at the Grandview Mall are facing international pressure to shut down an exhibit featuring what petitioners have described as the “world's saddest polar bear.”

In general, though, fish haven’t received the same sympathy as their counterparts on land, as the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller wrote last week.

Few weekenders consider fly-fishing an expression of rage and depravity (quite the opposite), and sushi diners ordering kuromaguro are apt to feel pangs from their pocketbooks more than from their souls. It is not easy to love the life of a fish, in part because fish don’t seem very enamored of life themselves. What moral interest could they hold for us?

Perhaps this Japanese controversy shows the tide may be beginning to shift in fish’s favor, too.

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