Tired of the same old liberal causes? Here’s one you might not have heard of: “Fish,” according to a spokeswoman for the Fish Empathy Project, “are interesting individuals who deserve our respect and compassion.” Not since the British poet Rupert Brooke wrote about “each secret fishy hope or fear” way back in 1915 has a human being reached out so kindly to the oppressed members of the class Osteichthyes.

Probably not many people realized the world needed a Fish Empathy Project. But think about it. Empathy abounds for war refugees, earthquake survivors, tsunami victims, the poor, and even such people-pleasing creatures as dogs, cats, elephants and red-crowned cranes. But fish?

Does anybody care? Apparently they do. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the international group to which the Fish Empathy Project belongs, definitely feels fish don’t get enough respect. And last month, the Project moved to remedy that by bestowing a humanitarian award on a Roman city councilor who had successfully proposed a ban on goldfish bowls.

Under a new bylaw, residents of the city that once hosted bloody gladiatorial battles and burned heretics at the stake may no longer keep fish in spherical bowls because, according to Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper, they cause fish to go blind. The council also banned fish and other animals from being given away as fairground prizes. There was no word on whether Romans may still go fishing in the Tiber or eat fish on Fridays.

Reactions have ranged from disbelief to hilarity. Some thought there was something, well, fishy about the whole story. “Go ahead and Google this. It’s true,” one U.S. columnist wrote, after lamenting that “it’s trickier than ever to tell fact from fiction.” Others simply made fun. One writer tried to go the council one better, saying that “the waters of old Europe” were probably as bad for the fish as the shape of the bowl and recommending that the fish be offered wine instead, like proper Italians.

Whatever they may think of the brouhaha over bowls, Japanese might well have mixed feelings about the rule against fish as fairground prizes. There can’t be a person in this country without nostalgic memories of catching a goldfish in a tub at a street festival and bringing it home in a bulging plastic bag. Kingyo sukui is simply one of those colorful customs that people are loath to let go because they embody both fun and tradition. Yet along with the nostalgia, many might acknowledge a twinge of discomfort over the fate of the poor fish. Let’s be honest. Of those that made it home alive, how many were thoughtlessly discarded or died in a jar within days?

All over the world, people are bound to have second thoughts after reading about Rome’s bold initiative. Sashimi could nosedive in popularity. DVD sales of the pro-fish movie “Finding Nemo” could soar. And what about that new fad of including live fish in commercial decor?

Guests in boutique hotels now often find goldfish bowls in their rooms, and it’s not uncommon for upscale restaurants to replace table flowers with fish swimming around in tiny containers.

It’s all very pretty but, according to marine experts, not so much fun for the oxygen-starved fish. Will there be a public backlash?

The councilor behind Rome’s new bylaw certainly hopes so. Treatment of animals is “a measure of the civilization of a city,” she told Il Messaggero.

Lest you think the councilor was merely fishing for publicity, her initiative attempts to improve life for less exotic pets, too. Romans must not only upgrade their fishes’ accommodation but also do better by their dogs and cats. They have to walk their dogs regularly and are forbidden to dock an animal’s tail for aesthetic reasons. The rules follow national legislation mandating jail sentences for Italians who abandon their pets. Local jurisdictions have added their own laws, some even more drastic than Rome’s. In Turin, dog owners can theoretically be fined up to 500 euros ($600) if they do not walk their charges at least three times a day.

Apart from the glaring omission of any discussion of how the new rules are to be enforced, perhaps Italy is onto something. People should treat their pets humanely. Including their fish. Japan, a nation with Buddhist roots, should have no trouble appreciating that. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to do as the Romans are now doing.

Remember last year’s fad for virtual girlfriends or other “companions” that could be accessed, for an exorbitant fee, through your cell phone? Fish are a lot cheaper. And now we are told that they are also “interesting individuals.” This could be the beginning of some beautiful new relationships.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.