To Eat, or Not to Eat? That Is the Question on Class Pets

To Eat, or Not to Eat? That Is the Question on Class Pets
Students debate whether to kill the fish they cared for

Original article appears on The Wall Street Journal, accessible here.

Posted: Tuesday, June 2, 2015
By SOPHIA HOLLANDER

This year, the seventh- and eighth-graders at Ella Baker, a public school on the Upper East Side, have painstakingly cared for a tank of tilapia. They monitored the ammonia levels of the 120-gallon fish tank, rationed daily food pellets, and refreshed the water at least twice a month.

The tilapia have been fine fish, the students agree.

Now they are trying to decide whether to eat them.

In recent years, classrooms across the U.S. have begun experimenting with school gardens, growing produce for consumption by students. A handful of private schools offer access to farms, where students milk cows and herd sheep that might later be eaten.

But the students at Ella Baker have added a spin to the local-food movement, asking whether it is ethical to raise a class pet—and then eat it.

The project is the brainchild of math teacher Michael Paoli. It is part math, part ethics and part science.

The fish tank fertilizes a vertical garden of vegetables growing above the tank. Mr. Paoli had received a grant to study aquaponic systems in Europe from the nonprofit group Fund for Teachers. His students have calculated the amount of weight the garden structure can hold and the right ratios of water to dechlorinating liquid.

“You want to make something matter,” Mr. Paoli said. “I want to think of it as an idea that matters to everybody and math is one of the ways we can learn about it.”

But looming over the year has been the prospect of a summer barbecue, leading to heated classroom discussions and occasional tears.

In a recent class, the debate still raged.

Class pets had died before, and without causing deep emotions, some students pointed out. They sensed hypocrisy.

“Suddenly this one fish matters?” asked 14-year-old Raven Garcia.

It is different to actively kill the pets instead of watching them die accidentally or of natural causes, others responded.

“It’s taking a life,” said  Julianna Angalada, 13.

You eat meat, some advocates of eating the fish noted. It shouldn’t make a difference whether you buy fish in a supermarket or kill it in a classroom. It is still dead.

But we raised them, the argument went on. It does make a difference.

That wasn’t true for everyone. Raven said she spent summers in Puerto Rico with her family. She grew used to raising chickens, caring for them and slaughtering them for dinner, she said.

“Eventually things are going to go and things are going to die,” she said her family taught her. “You might as well make use of how they go.”

Emilia Cooper, 12, said she aspires to be a doctor, and that meant she straddled the class divide. She favored killing the fish, but only so she could dissect them.

“I don’t want to eat them,” she said. “I just want to kill them.”

In a twist for Mr. Paoli’s project, the tilapia won’t be big enough to be grilled until next year. So he bought five full-size fish, all of which would have been ready to be eaten. Four died, however, and on a recent morning, the survivor swam around a second tank, puckering its mouth at students who watched.

Kaila Ayala, 13, said if the class decided to kill the fish she would stay home.

“Who are we to kill this fish?” she said. The tilapia darted behind a pipe. “Look how cute they are.”

Hiram Scott, 13, said the debate had forced him to reconsider his positions. During an earlier discussion, he was adamant the fish should be killed. Whether the class personally killed them or not, “they’re still going to die,” he said.

Now, he wasn’t so sure.

Unlike with packaged supermarket fish, “We have the choice and the option to kill this fish or let it live,” he said. “I think there is a difference because we have a choice.”

J. Nicholas Tarr, 13, who argued against the killings, said he would come to school if the fish were to die.

He would feel like “I could have worked harder to convince people they shouldn’t be killed,” he said. “It would be partially my responsibility and I feel like I would be a coward to not see them die.”

Write to Sophia Hollander at sophia.hollander@wsj.com